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Juliet Gerrard and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ
Juliet Gerrard and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ

ScienceJune 13, 2018

A brilliant woman is our new chief scientist, and the timing couldn’t be better

Juliet Gerrard and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ
Juliet Gerrard and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ

Microbiologist (and finalist for 2018’s New Zealander of the year) Siouxsie Wiles celebrates the announcement that Juliet Gerrard will be the next prime minister’s chief science advisor. 

Yesterday the prime minister announced who would be replacing Sir Peter Gluckman as her chief science advisor. For those of you not from the world of science or the ivory towers of academia, Sir Peter is the senior, wise, trusted, articulate, and knowledgeable “spokesman” you’ve probably seen all over the news recently fronting his office’s report on the meth-testing debacle. You know, the older, bearded, white man. Wears glasses. No, not that one. The other one.

The role of “scientist-in-charge” was established for Sir Peter in 2009 by then prime minister John Key to provide scientific advice to the PM (obviously), as well enhance the use of science in policy making and promote the public understanding of science. As Key – who since has become Sir John – put it: “I’m the first PM to have a chief science advisor. We don’t always like his advice and we don’t always listen to him.” Well, you can take a horse to water and all that … You can read about what Sir Peter did get up to on his blog.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been curious about who would replace Sir Peter when I heard he wasn’t interested in serving another term. The rumours were that a number of his network of senior, wise, trusted, articulate, and knowledgeable departmental science advisors were in the running. In other words, chances were that the older, bearded, white man with glasses would likely be replaced by another older, white man, though perhaps one who didn’t have a beard or wear glasses.

But Jacinda Ardern is in the driving seat now. And our minister for science and innovation is Dr Megan Woods who has a PhD in New Zealand history and used to work at Plant & Food Research, one of our Crown Research Institutes. So it was a wonderful surprise to hear that, in 2018, the year that marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, our new “scientist-in-charge” is Professor Juliet Gerrard, an internationally renowned biochemist at the University of Auckland. Juliet recently stepped down as chair of the Marsden Fund, the government’s funder of innovative blue-skies research. In other words, she’s no scientific lightweight.

As one older, though not bearded, white man just said to me on hearing the news “the women are taking over”. About bloody time is all I can say.

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