The role of evidence in policy formation and implementation

September 9th, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

A very good report on the role of evidence in policy formation and implementation from Sir Peter Gluckman. I am a fan of more use of evidence based policy.

Sir Peter notes:

All of this occurs within a complex and uncertain environment where human responses and decision-making are influenced by many factors other than well-informed knowledge. Indeed, as I have stated previously, my view is that quality evidence should be seen as base knowledge on which, in a democracy, multiple values and associated perspectives must be overlaid. However, where evidence is conflated with values, its power is diminished. Where evidence is not considered properly, the risk of less than desirable policy outcomes is inevitable.

For instance, it is possible for the research process to be corrupted by inputs that are not objective, or by the failure to recognise personal biases in bringing forward evidence. Researchers can become impassioned advocates for a cause that their expertise could meaningfully inform dispassionately

I can think of a number of areas, such as public health, where researchers are impassioned advocates to put it mildly.

They key recommendations are:

  1. Develop a standard set of protocols across government regarding obtaining expert scientific advice;
  2. Extend the use of Departmental Science Advisors (DSAs) more broadly across government;
  3. Use the community of DSAs and the Chief Science Advisor to assist central agencies with longer-term planning, risk assessment and evaluation;
  4. Improve and make more explicit the use of government funds for research to assist policy formation;
  5. Provide greater transparency regarding the use of research-informed data (or its absence) with respect to complex and controversial areas of decision-making where the public is directly or indirectly consulted.

I like the idea of each principal agency having a Departmental Science Advisor.

Science vs environment

August 2nd, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Robert Wilson at The Guardian writes:

Do many environmentalists hold anti-scientific positions? This idea, put forward by environmental journalist Fred Pearce and others, may have received some pushback (eg Anne Chapman earlier in this series) but for me, it is merely a statement of the obvious.

Consider that great scientific battleground of the early 21st century:embryonic stem cell research. Here is an issue where too many greens hold views indistinguishable from those of the Vatican. Greenpeace brought and won a lawsuit against the German scientist Oliver Brüstlewho wanted to patent a method of turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons. In a debate with writer and neuroscientist Kenan MalikGreenpeace claimed they were not opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Yet their own press release at the time made it clear that they were opposed to it.

Until 2010, the UK’s Green Party had rather unambiguous views on the issue too: they wanted an EU wide ban on embryonic stem cell research. Parts of a statement from Caroline Lucas were reminiscent of the religious right.

And what were the UK Greens against?

Exactly what did Lucas think the associated health risks are in attempting to cure debilitating diseases? To me, this is not merely anti-scientific, it is morally repugnant.

And on GE they ignore all the science, as they also do on fracking:

And let’s not forget the fondness of some environmental groups for destroying trials of genetically modified crops. Whether it is Monsanto or government scientists doing the research there always seems to be an environmentalist or two thinking of doing some uprooting. And we are not talking about fringe lunatics here. Last year’s failed attempt to destroy a trial of GM wheat in Rothamsted was supported by both the Green Party’s candidate for the London mayoral election and their current leader Natalie Bennett.

Greenpeace has a much richer history of ripping up GM crops. For some the defining image of Greenpeace campaigning may be brave activists climbing Europe’s tallest building, for me it is grown adults wearing hazmat suits to destroy crops they have no reason to be afraid of.

That Greenpeace takes a dogmatic, not a scientific, approach was made clear when Lord Melchett, then director of Greenpeace UK, made thefollowing statement on opposition to GM crops whilst appearing in front of the House of Lords:

“It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties. It is the nature of the technology, indeed it is the nature of science, that there will not be any absolute proof.”

Such statements would make even religious dogmatists blush. The UK’s main organic farming group, the Soil Association, naturally did not mind such dogmatism: they made Melchett their policy director.

A permanent, definite and complete opposition. They should work for the Spanish Inquisition.

Our choices about the future of energy supply need to be based on solid evidence, yet let’s consider the UK Green Party’s attitude to the evidence about nuclear power. In 2003 they published a report, enthusiastically endorsed by Caroline Lucas, that claimed “radioactive releases up to 1989 have caused, or will eventually cause, the death of 65 million people worldwide.” The research into this report was written by the rather absurd figure of Chris Busby, who apparently for many years was the Green Party’s main “expert” source on nuclear issues. I put scare-quotes round expert here for in late 2011 he was exposed for attempting to sell ineffective “anti-radiation” pills to people in the Fukushima region. For years the Green Party grounded their opposition to nuclear power in junk science, and it appears it still does.

If all of this leaves you unconvinced of the marriage of irrational, unscientific, and unethical attitudes by many green organisations then you should read about the history of opposition to golden rice, an innovation that has the potential to greatly reduce human suffering.

Golden rice provides Vitamin A, which boost the immune systems of children in developing countries and helps prevent blindness.

Am I not playing into the hands of the climate change sceptics by saying environmentalists are not consistent on science? No, I am not. Environmentalists who say we should accept the scientific consensus on climate change while telling us to ignore it on other issues are the people who are playing into the hands of those who oppose action on climate change. Because if we are to win the fight against climate change we will need to replace ideology, wishful thinking and spin with sober analysis. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said, reality must take precedence over public relations.

This is the great hypocrisy. They say you must accept the science around climate change (which I do), but they fight tooth and nail against the science around GE, fracking, fluoridation and nuclear. The reality is the extreme environmental movement is more akin to a religious organisation. They have a view of the world which is minimal human activity or interference with “nature”.  Hence why they see science as the enemy so often.

Science funding grows

May 2nd, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The Government has announced a multimillion dollar investment into science and innovation to help combat the biggest science challenges facing New Zealand.

At the Auckland War Memorial Museum today Prime Minister John Key announced an extra $73.5 million in funding for the science and innovation sector.

It brought the total funding to $133.5m over four years for Budget 2013.

Key said the funding put science at the heart of much of the Government’s thinking.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the funding would go towards 10 “challenges” that scientist could tackle.

These included research around helping New Zealanders’ health at the beginning and end of their lives, research into natural disasters, helping promote and protect the country’s biodiversity including its marine reserve, and the southern ocean.

The advisory panel, led by chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, received 200 submissions on the challenges.

Joyce said not all challenges would be solved overnight but some had refined research areas.

I quite like the idea of funding for some specific challenges or goals.

It appears the Government is on track to be back into surplus for 2014/15. They have stopped the previous runaway growth in spending across the board – but allowed some increases in a few key areas such as science, tourism and hospitals.

The 10 national science challenges announced today are:

+ Ageing well – harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life;

+ A better start – improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life;

+ Healthier lives – research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems;

+ High-value nutrition – developing high-value foods with validated health benefits;

+ New Zealand’s biological heritage – protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms;

+ Our land and water – research to enhance primary-sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations;

+ Life in a changing ocean – understanding how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints;

+ The deep south – understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment;

+ Science for technological innovation – enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth;

+ Resilience to nature’s challenges – research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters.


Test your science literacy

January 23rd, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Darcy Cowan at Sci Blogs has a 28 question science literacy test.

The test takes a fair while as you really have to think and comprehend some of the questions.

There were a couple of questions where I wasn’t sure about the answer because it was not a right/wrong question but a “What bext explains …” type question.

However I got 28 out of 28, which I am happy with. The full results were:

For Identifying valid scientific arguments you achieved 3 out of 3.

  For Evaluating and distinguishing sources you achieved 6 out of 6

  For Evaluating uses of scientific information you achieved 3 out of 3

  For Evaluating research design you achieved 4 out of 4

  For Making a graph you achieved 1 out of 1

  For Interpreting graphical information you achieved 4 out of 4

  For Quantitative problem solving you achieved 3 out of 3

  For Interpreting statistics you achieved 3 out of 3

  For Interpreting quantitative data you achieved 2 out of 2

If you do the quiz, post your scores below. Note it is a beta and Darcy is after feedback which can be made on the site linked to.


July 7th, 2010 at 7:16 am by David Farrar

I’m in Dunedin for the next couple of days, attending the New Zealand International Science Festival. I’ve got little spare time between events, so there will probably be fewer posts during the day.


June 21st, 2010 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

For those who don’t know, Dunedin will be hosting the NZ International Science Festival from 6 – 11 July:

Tickets are on sale now for the seventh New Zealand International Science Festival and can be purchased online at or by phoning 0800 SCIFEST.

  • Visiting experts attending the festival are Tom McFadden, a ‘science rapper’ and biologist from Stanford (USA); Tim Jarvis AM, a British Antarctic adventurer and environmental scientist; Mr Andrew Greensmith, a University of Otago graduate and specialist plastic surgeon based in Melbourne; NZ chef and author Julie Biuso and Julie Woods, known as ‘that blind woman’, who are teaming up to deliver an extraordinary ‘dining in the dark’ experience.
  • This year the festival is taking place in Dunedin over six days from 6 July – 11 July, 2010, and the theme is Everyday Science: Food for Thought.  In addition to the visiting experts, the festival involves many local organisations, volunteers, institutions, external event organisers, and a range of local and national sponsors and funders.
  • Planned events will explore the following topics: the future of our global water supply and the balance between the economy and our environment; medical advances in paediatric plastic surgery; an ‘on the edge –inspirational women in science breakfast’; why we are what we eat; greenhouse gas – no laughing matter; vitamin D deficiency – is it a concern? The festival will also host the world premiere of the recent University of Otago Medical School documentary, Donated to Science.
  • There are over 200 dynamic interactive events to interest all ages and open up the world of science to everyone.  The festival programme includes talks, films, debates and a live cabaret show, Dante’s Laboratory – Science of Sin – not to be missed. The ever-popular University of Otago Expo will take place on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 July.

I’m going to down in Dunedin for four days of the festival, and blogging about it. I wish I could spare the time for the entire week, as there look to be so many great things to go to. Some of the ones I plan to attend are:

  • When Yes Means No! How females control male reproductive success
  • Cadbury World Sensory Tour
  • The Science of Wine Making
  • On The Wild Side – Cruise with Monarch
  • Science as Art Photo Exhibition
  • Ancient Aztec Hot Chocolate Ceremony
  • The End of the Line – Sustainable Fishing Documentary
  • Dante’s Laboratory; The Science of Sin
  • On The Edge – Inspirational Women in Science
  • Exploring the South Pole
  • Café Sci – Walking the Tightrope; Balancing Our Economy and the Environment
  • Dining In the Dark Experience

Being in Dunedin is fun enough by itself. With all this stuff to go to, it will be even better.

Editorials 15 March 2010

March 15th, 2010 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald talks about respect for the Police:

Mr O’Connor’s approach is even more problematic. He says a lack of guilty verdicts in the District Court had shown society and criminals that insulting the police is acceptable. It has also made the police reluctant to charge people for low-level offending using the legal provisions. “Cases show that it’s something police are expected to put up with, but it shouldn’t be,” says Mr O’Connor. His response is essentially a zero-tolerance policy that would see people shouting obscenities at the police convicted for insulting behaviour.

This raises several problems. The first is that the courts are merely reflecting societal mores in their approach to such offending. Obscenities do not have the same impact as they did, say, 30 years ago. Nor are the police alone in feeling that respect for their authority has dwindled. The teaching profession, for example, suffers from the same ailment. When it applies a zero tolerance approach, it means large-scale suspensions and expulsions.

That is as misguided as a policy that would burden overloaded courts further with low-level offences against the police for little gain. Zero tolerance does not work because its inflexibility leaves no room to deal with an out-of-character indiscretion or suchlike. Its approach to minor misdeeds is also far more likely to create a climate of fear than engender respect.

I think there is some linkage between the fact that people can now call the Police c**ts to their face, and that some of those people then also go on to assault them.

The Press focuses on irrigation:

The selection of two irrigation schemes among the four winners of a competition to find projects with a long-term potential capacity to make a significant contribution to the Canterbury economy demonstrates the significance of the appropriate use of its water resource to the region.

The fact that both schemes are extremely contentious shows also how arguments over the use of the resource are unlikely to be quickly resolved.

But if the judges are right, that these schemes are among a handful in Canterbury with the capacity to generate $100 million of revenue for Canterbury within five years and $1 billion or more in revenue within 10 years, it is obviously very important that the decisions that are reached on these projects are the right ones.

There is precious little else on the economic horizon with such potential.

I should get more excited about water issues in Canterbury as I know they are important, but frankly I don’t.

The Dominion Post looks at science funding:

In short, the Government appears to have heeded OECD criticism in 2007 that the public science system was unduly fragmented, as well as Sir Peter’s advice.

Science might be finally emerging from the shadows, its non-sexy status having long been reinforced by an often scientifically ignorant public, suspicious of the work many scientists do – take, for example, widespread distrust of genetic engineering, despite the public good it might do.

Thus, science is so often in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Not last week, though. Then, two Wellington scientists were awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s Science Prize for their research into the multimillion-dollar field of high-temperature superconductivity.

Both work for Industrial Research.Its chief, Shaun Coffey, says public-sector investment in the scientists’ endeavour has not only been repaid in terms of their work’s contribution to the economy, it has also positioned New Zealand “at the forefront of a new industry that is set to revolutionise the way electricity is used and distributed”. He knows the challenges ahead, however.

All eyes will be on the budget, as it has been made clear this is one of the few areas to get extra funding:

The ODT looks at the proposed tertiary education reforms:

Recent Cabinet decisions relating to funding for higher education and research suggest the Government is serious about its objective of raising knowledge standards and building a solid base for public and economic benefits from progress in science.

These are not easy decisions to make from a political perspective, since if they deliver hoped-for benefits they will do so only in the longer term.

There are few votes in such policies and it is to the Government’s credit that it is not afraid to embrace long-term goals for the greater good. …

The Government is in effect offering financial incentives for institutions tied to the improving educational performance of their students, which suggests that institutions with an aspirational goal of excellence, such as Otago university, can only benefit.

The case for science funding

July 2nd, 2008 at 9:25 am by David Farrar

Simon Upton makes a strong case for more funding for science:

I support spending taxpayer dollars on science more than most other areas of government expenditure. Extending the frontiers of human knowledge is a legitimate goal of public policy.

To start, two science stories. This (northern) summer, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be commissioned. In the form of a ring with a circumference of 27km and buried 100 metres below the Franco-Swiss border on the outskirts of Geneva, it is the most powerful tool of its type ever constructed.

The scientific questions it will be targeting are mind-boggling: what happened in the first second following the inception of our universe some 13.7 billion years ago? Why do particles have mass? Does the Higgs boson really exist? What is the dark matter that makes up most of the universe made of?

Every statistic about the LHC is overwhelming. Particles will be accelerated to 99.99% of the speed of light; detectors will sift through vertiginous amount of data created by 600 million collisions per second. The instrument has taken nine years to build. While the Europeans have funded 90 per cent of the 3.7 billion euros the project has so far consumed, it will engage scientists from more than 100 countries.

To which I can only say “bravo” to the Europeans for such a staggering commitment which has no goal other than the quest of understanding why our universe is the way it is.

Like Simon, I think there is a legitimate case for public spending on science. Knowledge is what seperates us from the cavemen.

And now you ask, why do particles have mass??