Using science for good

April 5th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The PM announced a significant funding and policy package yesterday around teenage . An extract from his speech:

Even a mild mental illness can have a big impact on a young person’s life and on those around them.

In my time as Prime Minister I’ve seen the impact of youth mental illness all too often.

I’ve met teenagers suffering from depression who can’t see a path forward.

I’ve met gay and lesbian kids who are struggling with their sexuality and suffering from anxiety issues.

And I’ve met parents who have lost a child to . These are good, everyday Kiwi parents.

When the worst happens and a teenager takes their own life, those left behind have a heavy burden to bear.

Our youth suicide rate is alarmingly high.

They say the worse thing in the world is outliving a child. Even worse than that must be, when the death is from suicide. The trauma it leaves behind with family and close friends is massive, and scars for life. It is one reason why suicide is generally such as extremely selfish act. But sadly, sometimes seems a logical option to a desperately unhappy person.

Anyway what I found interesting and encouraging was the words from Sir Peter Gluckman on the package:

The announcement today of a very significant package of initiatives aimed to improve the quality, and the effectiveness of the delivery, of mental health services to young people throughout New Zealand is both important in its own right and also a demonstration of how evidence and expert advice can be used effectively to improve policy formation. …

The origin of these initiatives is an exemplar of how policy formation in complex areas can be based on informed scientific advice. In 2009, the Prime Minister asked me to consider the problems associated with the transition through adolescence. Rather than undertake a superficial review, I embarked on a 18-month project that eventually involved more than 30 New Zealand experts and several international contributors. Intentionally we produced a report, entitled Improving the transition, that stayed focused on the scientifically robust evidence and avoided opinion and anecdote. Among its findings were significant concerns about the provision of mental health services to many young people. Following this report, the Prime Minister initiated an officials group to consider what could be done, taking into account the advice from our report, and their work was subject to iterative review by an expert group chaired by myself. It is primarily from that process that the initiatives announced today emerged.

This is an excellent way to do policy, with a robust science based approach.

I’ve seen policy formulation done many ways. I’ve been in rooms when we have brainstormed election policy. I’ve seen policy changed unilaterally to fit an advertisement (rather than vice-versa). One won’t always be able to do policy as described above, but it is an ideal to aim for in many portfolios.

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23 Responses to “Using science for good”

  1. mikenmild (11,719 comments) says:

    ‘It is one reason why suicide is generally such as extremely selfish act.’
    Um, no.

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  2. Pete George (23,683 comments) says:

    Also in Key’s announcement speech:

    I’d like to acknowledge here the work of United Future leader Peter Dunne, who made Youth One Stop Shops part of his Confidence and Supply Agreement with the National Party.

    Peter is also busy driving work through in the youth suicide area and I am pleased to have his support for this package today.

    Dunne gets a lot of criticism (much of it unfairly) – but he should at least get credit where it’s due.

    Also: Youth Package big plus in fight against suicides – Dunne

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  3. Jinny (306 comments) says:

    But Dunne negated any good he is doing when he was responsible for gambling legislation – if it wasn’t for Peter Dunne, we wouldn’t be arguing the toss over more pokie machines and consequently more problem gamblers – who also have a huge suicide rate, which didn’t matter to Dunne at the time – rather hypocritical of him to be attaching himself to this cause IMO when he has aligned himself so strongly with the hospitality and gambling industries in the past.

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  4. berend (1,716 comments) says:

    Sadly we can already predict that all this money will have a negligible impact on youth suicide rates.

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  5. Scott (1,818 comments) says:

    In my humble opinion it won’t make the blindest bit of difference. I have no faith in science to solve problems of the human heart and the human spirit. More taxpayer money spent on more salaries and more big government initiatives. Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.

    But rather than just rail at the darkness here are a few proven tips to help this tragic issue – give them a faith to live by. Our spirits cannot handle a vacuum.
    – Get married and bring up your children in a stable marriage environment.
    – Let’s be against suicide. How can we consider youth suicide a tragedy when we consider euthanasia a human right?
    – Don’t take drugs and don’t let your kids take drugs either.
    – Do not glamorise the funerals of those that have committed suicide. There is a direct causal link between those who go to the funeral of a teenager and those who kill themselves, often the next day. The copycat syndrome is absolutely real.

    These are good initiatives. And look we haven’t spent a cent of taxpayer money!

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  6. Pete George (23,683 comments) says:

    Jinny – so once an MP votes contrary to what you want then they can never do any good? That must rule out just about every MP.

    If all gambling and drinking was banned do you think that would solve all mental health problems?

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  7. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    berend: “Sadly we can already predict that all this money will have a negligible impact on youth suicide rates.”

    In which case there should certainly be some resulting publications to refute this currently “robust science”.

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  8. berend (1,716 comments) says:

    Pete George: given that a lot of drinking and gambling happens to be with taxpayer money, I would say ban it. If we give you the means to live, we’ll decide how you live.

    Alan: growing up is hardly a new problem. So we cannot attribute problems to “growing up”. We can attribute them to the environment in which kids grow up. That’s the factor that has changed. And that’s the factor that won’t be addressed.

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  9. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    berend, youth suicide is not a new problem, nor confined to this country. If Gluckman is correct that the remedies to be funded are well-founded scientifically then they should have an impact. If they don’t, then either the original research is wrong or some new factors should have been identified … or Gluckman is spinning.

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  10. Pete George (23,683 comments) says:

    I’d back Gluckman over berend – something has to be tried to deal with major mental health and suicide problems.

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  11. mikenmild (11,719 comments) says:

    Science is good when:
    1. The government thinks it can afford it, and
    2. It’s something the government agrees with.

    Science is bad when:
    1. The government thinks it can’t afford it, and
    2. It’s something the government disagrees with.

    So, yes to tinkering with youth mental health, but no to lots of other things, like a harm-reduction approach to drug use or funding transport projects on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.

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  12. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    mikenmild, I wouldn’t put much faith in the cost-benefit analysis of transport projects. Have you ever looked at how they get their $4M value of a life? Laughable – or make you weep if you’re a scientist.

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  13. eszett (2,430 comments) says:

    @Alan, I’m quite curious, how do they do the calculation?
    And what do you think is wrong with it?

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  14. plum (38 comments) says:

    @eszett – the Ministry of Transport just released their updated figures for the social costs of traffic accidents yesterday. You can check out the figures and the methodology here: http://www.transport.govt.nz/ourwork/land/landsafety/thesocialcostofroadcrashesandinjuries/

    It is partially based on a fairly outdated survey (1991) that attempted to assess how much people would be prepared to pay to avoid being killed or serously injured in a car accident. I don’t think the methodology per se is fundamentally flawed, although I do think they need to redo the survey to see if peoples’ willigness to pay to prevent their death or injury by car accident has changed since 1991.

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  15. wreck1080 (3,963 comments) says:

    is this the right time considering the countries current financials?

    There are literally millions of good causes out there to throw money at.

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  16. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    plum, of course the methodology is fundamentally flawed. How much people say they are prepared to pay when there is zero prospect of them actually doing so or having the money to do so is an utterly ludicrous basis to value anything – let alone to claim it is a “social cost”.

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  17. eszett (2,430 comments) says:

    Thanks Plum,

    It is indexed though to the average hourly wages.
    But I agree it would be interesting to see if that has changed or not and whether the indexing on average hourly wages is sufficient.

    Maybe comparing it to how often other countries do similar surveys and how often and also check how big the impact is there.

    However I am not quite sure that you can call it “laughable”.

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  18. eszett (2,430 comments) says:

    So, Alan, do you have a better suggestion?

    From what you are saying, I gather you think that the SVOL is overstated.

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  19. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    eszett, I don’t believe it measures anything real and certainly nothing worth using in a cost-benefit analysis that is expected to be taken seriously.

    The value of a life to the community is presumably the NPV of future earnings and unpaid contributions less costs. For some people that is a lot and for others it is negative. Essentially it is unknowable.

    From the point of view of Government expenditure they can look at the available money and find the most quality of life – years they can save with that money. In other words, compare the costs of saving lives in different ways to determine priorities. But the allocation of money to that purpose compared with other uses is a political decision, not an economic one, just as is an individual’s choice of expenditure on charities and a Government’s choice of how much money to spend on overseas aid for a similar purpose (but usually assuming a far lower SVOL).

    Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_of_life

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  20. plum (38 comments) says:

    @Alan Wilkinson – the ‘willingness to pay’ methodology is used all over the Western world by governments. The value in NZ for a statistical life is about half what the USA government calculates it at. So if anything, ours is undervalued rather than overvalued. The whole point is that it is social costs – ie. intangible costs such as pain and suffering. It is always going to be difficult to measure such things, but an attempt should be made to capture them, otherwise, you understate the case for intervention. The costs you describe – lost productivity etc are just economic costs. These aspects are included in MoT’s methodology as well.

    @Eszett – basically there’s a whole body of literature on the subject going back to the 60’s, that better qualified people than Alan Wilkinson have turned their minds to, and the ‘willingness to pay’ methodology is the best proxy anyone has come up with so far to capture the full dimensions of the worth of a human life.

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  21. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    @plum, it’s ludicrous unscientific crap, typical of bureaucracies and some “social science” ghettos. And it isn’t “willingness to pay”. It’s willingness to speculate blind about spending other people’s money and then average the results. Farcical.

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  22. Alan Wilkinson (1,889 comments) says:

    Just to highlight further the absurdity of this claimed value, at $4M per life, Pharmac should be prepared to fund a lifetime of drugs at say 5% of this = $200K per annum for every patient who needs it. It isn’t.

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  23. Chuck Bird (4,924 comments) says:

    “This is an excellent way to do policy, with a robust science based approach.”

    Like promoting the global warming scam.

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