The world we live in and the society we’re a part of is increasingly underpinned and informed by science and technology. This can include many products that we use or consume, the ways in which we learn, how we travel, how we communicate and how we manage our health and wellbeing.
To be able to make decisions about how we live our life and how we want our society to function requires an understanding of science. In New Zealand, the school science curriculum requires students to develop an understanding of the nature of science. School leavers should have a level of skill and enthusiasm to engage in socio-scientific issues and evaluate scientific knowledge to make informed personal and societal decisions. Our society is made up of people with different perspectives and levels of scientific understanding. So how about the people we elect to govern our society? Do they have different levels of scientific understanding? How can politicians and people in government make smart and effective decisions if they don’t have a strong understanding of the science involved?
Think about the COVID-19 pandemic. For countries all around the world, governments are required to make decisions to protect their citizens from a deadly virus – for example, the decision of the New Zealand Government to go into lockdown in March 2020. Now, governments are having to make decisions about what vaccines to use against COVID-19 and how to supply these to their citizens. How can individuals in governments with no or little science background make good decisions when they have no expert understanding of viral illness, vaccinations and epidemiology? For many countries, appointing scientific advisors or seeking out experts has become a part of their decision making.
Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister
To provide an accessible bridge between science, society and government, New Zealand has the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. Our present Chief Science Advisor is biochemist and University of Auckland Professor, Dame Juliet Gerrard. Her role – in the words of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (OPMCSA) – is to “provide advice to the Prime Minister on scientific matters and to ensure that advice given is robust, fairly represents expert views, and is responsive to criticism and review”.
Being able to deliver unwelcome advice is crucial. Politicians don't have to take that advice but the independence of this position must be a top priority.”Dame Juliet Gerrard, NZ Herald, 9 October 2018
So how do we assure that the people appointed as scientific advisors are not unduly influenced by politics, business and other organisations? In New Zealand, there are a number of rules and policies in place. These include:
- the Chief Science Advisor is not a government employee
- during their term, a Chief Science Advisor cannot continue any board appointments and leadership roles, and they cannot apply for research funding in New Zealand
These and other policies enable the PMCSA the freedom to speak out on important issues.
The Office of the PMCSA
The PMCSA is supported by an independent team within the OPMCSA. The team includes other science advisors, policy analysts and interns. These people support the PMCSA to provide science-based evidence in response to requests from the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers.
The provision of information can be delivered in a variety of ways:
- In person, directly to the Prime Minister or Ministers.
- Within a formal letter containing a quick scan of the relevant and available scientific literature on a topic of interest.
- An information report – usually a document between 3 and 50 pages. For example, a number of information reports have been done around aspects of COVID-19 pandemic.
- A full and comprehensive published report – for example, the report on plastics covered in the article Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – the report.
Many of the reports produced by the OPMCSA are written in plain English in order to communicate clearly to government and other organisations without scientific expertise and members of the public. Larger reports are often accompanied by summary versions.
Examples of reports and information documents that will be of interest within the classroom cover:
- gene editing
- antimicrobial resistance
- myrtle rust
- rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand
- the future of commercial fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The OPMCSA also keeps a watch on ‘hot topics’ that emerge from scientific research and are often of strong interest to the public. Recent examples of hot topics covered by the OPMCSA are vaping, 5G and health, climate change and 1080.
In June 2021, Dame Juliet Gerrard was appointed for a further 3-year term as the PMCSA.
Read some of the briefs produced on hot topics by the OPMCSA. Many of these hot topics align with what we refer to as ‘wicked problems’ in education – for example, see the article Climate change – a wicked problem for classroom enquiry.
For related educational resources on some of these hot topics, take a look at 1080 – a wicked problem, Microplastics, Rethinking plastics and Rethinking plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand – the report, Climate change resources – planning pathways and Genetically modified foods – a socio-scientific issue.
Learn more about the role of PMCSA and the OPMCSA here.