In the political fighting over Jacqueline Rowarth’s departure from the Environmental Protection Authority, there’s one player who defies easy categorisation, the PM’s science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman. He talks to Eloise Gibson about trust and independence.

If there was a prize for ‘most unexpected player’ in the stoush over Jacqueline Rowarth’s departure from the Environmental Protection Authority, it would go to Sir Peter Gluckman.

Rowarth resigned in February after just over a year as the agency’s chief scientist, following kerfuffles over her public statements on irrigation, river cleanliness and other scientists.

The fallout quickly settled along tidy party political lines, with National MPs on the environment select committee declaring Rowarth was “highly competent and respected” and accusing Labour and Green ministers of meddling.

Ministers David Parker and Eugenie Sage denied any untoward tampering to bring her down, despite texts and emails suggesting they were concerned.

So far, so predictable – but then there’s Sir Peter.

New Zealand’s first-ever Prime Minister’s chief science advisor was appointed nine years ago by Sir John Key and enjoyed a seemingly strong rapport with National.

He’s often talked about how his job is not to advocate for a side, stressed the importance of building trust by seeming impartial, and tutted about climate scientists veering too far into activism. (Though he also acknowledges advocates have helped “move the dial” on climate action).

Sir Peter was restrained during times when politicians may have seemed anti-science, including when the National government, swayed by public worry, rejected adding folate to bread to prevent birth defects. The topic is near to Sir Peter’s life’s research on improving health outcomes in utero.

“It’s a bit like being a judge. How can you be a judge on a case if you’ve expressed views on a case before the case is heard?”

But in his view, his job is to present the evidence, then step back and let politicians decide. “We do not live in a technocratic society where the scientists are in charge,” he says. Failures like folate are failures of science outreach and engagement, he once wrote in the journal Nature.

While he accepts that no science can ever be bias-free (“we’re human”), he maintains his job is keeping his values out of it as much as possible. (However, he writes to the Prime Minister each year with his views on our low-by-OECD-standards science funding, albeit no doubt citing evidence).

When a scientist works for a regulator such as the EPA, impartiality is even more crucial than it is in his job, he says.

“It’s a bit like being a judge. How can you be a judge on a case if you’ve expressed views on a case before the case is heard?” he says.

Maybe Rowarth didn’t get the memo, or she saw things differently.

In any case it emerged during the fallout from her departure that Sir Peter had approached the EPA and expressed concerns about her public statements.

Asked why, he says: “It’s not about the individual. Jacqueline is a marvellous woman. It’s about the principle that regulatory scientists and regulators have to behave in a particular way.”

“Take something contentious like genetic modification, if I start talking about it with a declared view on which way it should go I would lose the trust and the ability to be seen as a communicator of the issues, plus and minus.”

In essence, he saw her as advocating.

“Just as I have to be careful to be a knowledge broker, I think that the EPA or any other regulator needs to follow the basic principles of knowledge brokerage, which is, summarising what we know and what we don’t know, the caveats, and the implications for decision-makers,” he says. “Part of the role … is to be trusted. Once knowledge brokers are seen to be putting their own judgment on the table, trust starts to get undermined,” he says.

Trusted brokers

A measure of trust in the science advisor’s office may help explain why, this week, after years of experts futilely criticising Housing NZ’s meth testing standards, the conversation completely changed when Sir Peter’s office released a report. Provided a home hadn’t been an actual meth lab, there was more risk to tenants from mould than from traces left by meth users, the report by his office concluded. For once, there was action, and outrage, and the testing standards were instantly scrapped.

It may be that the Government was already ready to listen to the evidence, which might be why it commissioned a report from Sir Peter’s office’s to start with. (Sir Peter, who’s worked for three Prime Ministers, notes that Ardern is the keenest of the three on getting formal reports from his office. He claims to have enjoyed them all, and to have had good access to all of them, by the way). Either way, it showed the potential clout of an information broker.

The information food chain, as Sir Peter sees it, starts with researchers creating knowledge, which then gets synthesised by bodies such as the Royal Society. He and his office broker the knowledge, with its pros and cons, to policy-makers and politicians, who decide what to do with it. “We work on the assumption that the more we can transmit what we know and acknowledge the limits to decision-makers, the more likely they are to make better decisions.”

“It took a while for the policy-makers to understand that I was not a political appointment of just the apparatus of the Prime Minister of the day… It was an unknown quality, and for many of them I was an unknown person.”

That’s not always how it works, though, when policy-makers don’t value access to evidence.

The PM’s science advisor has agitated for years for more science advisors to be appointed within departments, such as the Ministry of Transport (where Simon Kingham was appointed in February) and Te Puni Kokiri (which still doesn’t have one, a failure Sir Peter lists among his disappointments).

Last year, he wrote in a report that policy professionals “may often assume Wikipedia to be a sufficient source of knowledge on which to build major policy proposals”.

Have things improved since then?

“There’s variation, there’s no doubt … but the fact that [my] job has been continued with no significant change suggests it’s working well. Uptake takes time, it takes time for policy-makers to understand the role of evidence and the role of the science advisor, and in general those departments that are using a science adviser well are feeling enormous benefits.”

The Ministry for the Environment just became the first department to make its science advisor role full-time, when it appointed Alison Collins. The Ministry’s science strategy is full of references and promises to work with Collins’ office. There’s quite a collection now; Collins works with the departmental science advisors from conservation and primary industries on issues that cross ministries. All of the country’s departmental science advisers meet once a month, chaired by the PM’s science advisor. (I’d pictured a walnut table and erudite discussions conducted from leather armchairs, though Collin says the meetings aren’t quite like that.)

Most English-speaking countries have a chief science advisor now, which wasn’t the case when Sir Peter started. “I’m seeing more and more situations where policy-makers or Ministers want their science advisor at the table, and it’s a global trend,” he says.

But nine years in the job is enough, he says. He steps down on June 30, when he’ll be replaced by a soon-to-be announced successor.

This time, his successor’s appointment process was competitive, something he wishes had happened to him. He fears he was seen as a government appendage. “It took a while for the policy-makers to understand that I was not a political appointment of just the apparatus of the Prime Minister of the day… It was an unknown quality, and for many of them I was an unknown person,” he says. “It took time to build trust.”

“In retrospect, it was unfortunate that the government of that time didn’t use a due process.”

Now the role is nine years old, and ready for a new stage. Though it’s theoretically been part-time, Sir Peter says that, for years, he hasn’t been able to do much for Auckland University’s Liggins Institute, which he founded and theoretically stayed employed by.

As for his plans, he’ll continue to chair the International Network for Government Science Advice, a round-table of science advisors from around the world, as well as the Commonwealth Science Advisory Network.

Aside from that, “watch this space”, he says.

There must be something he’s been burning to say, but couldn’t, throughout all these years. Climate change, folate, fluoride in water, education or prison reform?

If there is, we’ll have to wait, because his office still has three more reports to release during his final few weeks in the job. At least one of them may prove contentious. He needs to give them the oxygen they need, he says.

If it turns out he’s burning to take sides on a policy issue, we won’t learn what it is just yet.

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