Juliet Gerrard and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ

‘I literally covered my wall in Post-it notes’: meet NZ’s new chief scientist

The new chief science adviser to the prime minister, Professor Juliet Gerrard, talks about diversity in science, the political hot potatoes, and what constitutes science.

The biggest splash out of the office of chief science advisor to the NZ prime minister came in the final days of its first occupant’s tenure. A report overseen by Sir Peter Gluckman blew the lid on a long-running meth contamination scare, which ultimately saw the government direct Housing NZ to pay compensation to around 800 wrongfully evicted tenants.

While those revelations were playing out in headlines Juliet Gerrard was appointed as the second chief science advisor to the prime minister a decision which was hailed at the time on this site by Siouxsie Wiles. A professor of biochemistry at the University of Auckland, Gerrard’s scientific interests traverse biochemistry, health, agriculture, food science and biomaterial design. After spending the first few weeks taking soundings from scientists around New Zealand, she has now properly assumed the independent role, which includes oversight of a dozen departmental science advisors.

The Spinoff spoke to Gerrard last week, as she was preparing to head to Tokyo and meet her counterparts at the International Network for Government Science Advice.

The Spinoff: Among the other international advisers, are there some that have been part of the furniture a lot longer than in NZ?

Juliette Gerrard: It’s really varied around the world. So different countries have had different advisers using different models at different times. But there’s quite a community of practice, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, Sir Peter was a lead figure in the thinking. So he spent a lot of time building that community and coordinating groups so they could share information. Because lots of the advice that’s required from different governments is going to be internationally relevant, so it’s more efficient to work together.

Given the role was a new one, with Gluckman the first – what can you look at that worked, and what can be improved on?

I think Peter did a fantastic job at defining the role in New Zealand, not just for the prime minister’s chief science advisor, but for using evidence in general, to inform policy. He really championed the appointment of the network of departmental science advisers that sit across various ministries. And he really built that international network. So I think that’s a fantastic platform.

My focus is going to be lifting the profile of those advisers and forming more of an advisory team, so that we can look at some of the gnarly issues and work together, not in silos.

A lot of the issues facing the government at the moment are going to cut across different ministries. So if you’re interested in climate change, you’re going to need to talk to MPI, and DOC, and the Ministry for the Environment. So that provides quite a nice forum to have those discussions. They had been happening under Sir Peter, but we’re just going to formalise it a bit more and raise their profile.

So you expect those advisers to be more in the public eye than they have been?

Yes, I think so. Obviously it’s going to depend on the context and the particular issue. But, yes, I imagine that if they’d been working on an issue, they would be fronting that. And that’s been happening to a certain extent, but I think there’s scope to really bring in those other expert voices.

The other thing I’m really keen to work on is making the advice more accessible. So we’re advising the government, in my case the prime minister, but I think there’s some to make sure there’s a public facing layer to that, that we’re explaining very openly what it is that the advice means. So often the documents are going to be quite dense, and aimed at policy-makers. So just simple and accessible summaries – we’re going to pop those up on the website, the current issues of the day.

So, for example, anti-microbial resistance is a big issue, there’s been reports out internationally, from the World Bank and the World Health Authority. So we’re just complete a two-page document with a simple summary of what the issue is and what it means for New Zealand. More accessibility, more transparency.

The final thing I’m working on is inclusivity. Because of the way the network evolved, there’s lots of individual appointments and nobody’s looked at the group as a whole. For good reasons – it wasn’t formed as a group. It was formed as a collection of individuals to advise in their context. But if you look around the table you get the demographic you might expect. There’s lots of old white guys, not many women, and no Māori voice.

So one of the things I’ve been prioritising is working with Māori researchers, and at the weekend I went to the Federation of Māori Authorities and they are appointing a chief adviser, innovation and research, and a team around him, so they can connect with the science system. And I think that’s going to be a fantastic bit of connection, to really build a bridge to Te Ao Māori.

Is it part of your role to address broader diversity in the field?

Yes. I mean obviously I’m only one person with a small office, and that requires a massive culture change. But I’m getting in behind the efforts in MBIE to improve diversity in the science workforce. They put out the MBIE diversity statement recently simply committing to collect the data and putting out some stats. The Māori and Pasifika numbers particularly stand out. There’s only 2% represented in the science workforce – against a population that’s much bigger than that, something like 25%. I think that’s a really urgent thing to address. We really need to just bring those voices into the science system.

How does it work practically? I’m assuming the prime minister won’t, for example, ring you up at dawn to ask you a question about nuclear physics or fluoride?

No. I guess if there was an emergency that might happen, but what we committed to do was that I would go around the country , so I’ve visited as many places as I possibly can, all sorts of different research institutes, and asked the research community: OK, where do you think there’s evidence that research is not being done, that could really improve government policy, and how could we make that work? Obviously I had my own ideas; the other science advisers have their own ideas, too.

And then I literally covered my wall in Post-it notes, in a big mind-map, and looked at the areas where the research community think they can make a difference. And then sat down with the prime minister in my office, and said: OK, where are there gaps? There are other streams of advice going into government, but where is there something, a project that’s easy to scope, where there’s an evidence base that could really make a difference to policy, that’s timed with the policy agenda? If it’s working correctly, your science evidence lands on the desk just as the policy-writers are writing the policy.

That was a very complicated prioritisation process. And I think the two that are coming up to the top are: one on plastics in the circular economy. How are we going to change behaviour, improve recycling, improve composting, and also look at those long-term stretchy solutions, the whole new material. So put together an evidence portfolio for that. Because obviously there’s lots of interest in that at the moment and lots of policy-makers are looking for that evidence base. So that’s a nice timely one.

The other is to collect some stories where western science and Te Ao Māori are coming together and really strengthening both frameworks, using the knowledge base from both cultures and really celebrating those examples. That won’t be a piece of evidence as such, but a way of celebrating success, where two cultures are coming together in a more inclusive space. That will go up on the website. I’m trying to work as transparently as possible.

You’ve also mentioned GM as something you might look into.

GM is something very high in the list of issues that scientists would like to address. Obviously it is fraught in New Zealand. We don’t have a good history of calm discussion on that topic. The Royal Society is looking in some depth at the new gene-editing technology in various contexts, and what that might mean for different communities. So they’re looking in the primary industries, in health, in pest control, all those sorts of things. And they’re doing lots of public consultations in that space. And that piece of work is all very transparent – it’s going up on the website as they publish different pieces. We’re keeping a really close watching brief on that. And I think the first step is probably to look at the legal and regulatory framework, because at the moment it’s not fit for purpose, because the act was written before the technologies we’re discussing were even invented. So I think what we need to do is have a calm look at sorting out the language and the legal and regulatory framework.

So that whichever side of the argument you’re on, at least we’re at least all speaking the same language. And then move forward and decide the degree to which we’ve got social licence. So it’s not top of the priority list, simply because the Royal Society are busy doing that piece of work. But once they’ve finished that trawl through the evidence and done the public consultation we’ll be looking at what would be in scope to work on.

Testing a house for meth contamination. Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

That’s of course a bit of a political hot potato, perhaps even more so than the meth testing work overseen by your predecessor. To what extent to you pay heed to that?

The job involves just looking at the scientific evidence. To put together the evidence as objectively as possible. And to synthesise it in a form that’s useful to policy-makers. That’s only one thread that goes on to the policy-maker’s desk. The rest of it will be about values and what voters want and what is on the government’s agenda. That part of it is not in scope. My role is about the science. And obviously the way you ask the question and the way you scope the work is going to become politicised very quickly. So I think it’s really important to step back from that and calmly look at the evidence. In this case I think the place that we can have that calm conversation is around whether the legal and regulatory framework is fit for purpose. I think that’s a question that can be answered objectively, and that will help move the debate forward.

What about social sciences? There was major work done recently on criminal justice recently. But do you think, for example, there is such a thing as “political scientist”?

The word science is quite contested. My reading of it is that we should interpret that as broadly as possible – so anywhere that there’s evidence that is being collected in a systematic and objective fashion.

I think the work in the criminal justice system space – a third report is in the pipeline – is very important. Particularly important for our group at the present time because a lot of that work is well aligned with the policy agenda. So there is a need to be collating that evidence, because there are policies being written. There’s an urgency to that. Those pieces of work will be led by the social science advisors. Because that’s where the expertise is.

But when it comes to some of what might be called ‘softer’ sciences, do you have to draw the line somewhere?

It’s what counts as evidence. And that’s something, certainly, that researchers from different disciplines have been talking to me about, as I’ve gone round listening  to people around the country. Do you need to draw the line somewhere? You need to make sure that there’s a sound basis, that the data being presented is objective and that ultimately whatever you’re trying to achieve, this is going to work. Or, at least enough evidence that it’s worth a try, and you can test if it works. So you do have to draw the line, around an objective way of doing the research.

But for example kaupapa Māori research methods I think are completely valid, and maybe haven’t been included in the evidence base as much as you might like. And, yes, political science is always going to be tricky when you’re trying to draw a line between science evidence and politics.

And the other one that’s interesting as to where and when it is included is economics. At the moment we don’t have an economist around the table and I think that would be a useful voice.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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