The Role of Science in Policy

The government’s COVID-19 response has shown how crucial science advice is in informing policy decisions. With so much science discussed in the press and social media, trusted science advice is hugely important for all policy.

But who selects and interprets science for the government and how does it inform policy decisions? MARGARET MCLACHLAN found out.

As Dr George Slim, a consultant with the office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (PMCSA), points out, there are a huge number of researchers and scientists in New Zealand. They work across government agencies, universities, polytechnics, wānanga, Crown Research Institutes, and independent research organisations.

“Science is a contested process, so having a number of voices is valuable. The challenge lies in feeding the wealth of science and expertise into government decision making at the top,” Dr Slim says.

Since 2009, this has been a role for the prime minister’s Chief Science Advisor – the first advisor being Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, and since 2018, Professor Juliet Gerrard. The central focus of the role is advising the prime minister about how science can inform good decision making. The office also acts as a conduit between the science community and government and aims to make science more accessible to the public.

Dr Slim says, “The office works in a very transparent and open way; ministries are open to advice and people understand the value science can add to decision making. Juliet is not an ‘ivory-tower’ person, and she’s determined to engage with the government and the science community.”

In setting the priorities for her term, Professor Gerrard and her office consulted widely with scientists and others working in the science field. Together they brainstormed ideas and established a list of priority topics, which included plastics, cannabis, and sustainable fishing. Then there was COVID-19.

“With COVID-19, we were lucky we had our eye on it as it developed. I remember thinking, ‘wow, it looks like only a couple of months before it becomes a serious issue here’,” Dr Slim says.

The government based its response on the latest science, which included advice from Professor Gerrard, epidemiologists, and the Ministry of Health. While Ministry of Health Chief Executive Ashley Bloomfield was the public face of the pandemic response, the Chief Health Science Advisor, Professor Ian Town, played a crucial role in interpreting the evolving data on COVID-19.

Role of chief science advisors

Many departments and agencies have a chief science advisor, who works internally to promote science-based decision making, and externally, via the Science Advisor Forum.

Stuart McNaughton is the Chief Education Science Advisor. “I’m often in a privileged position where I can move within groups in the Ministry [of Education]. I find myself helping to connect groups around the evidence base for policy. The Science Advisor Forum is where we have more work to do to join up the agencies. Again, the evidence points to the need for coherent and integrated approaches to social-sector policy – although there are some good examples of inter-agency work, such as working groups on bullying and work on family and domestic violence across the Ministry of Justice, Education, and Social Development.”

Synthesising advice across sometimes disparate evidence bases is part of this integrated approach. A recent example within the Ministry of Education has been collating the evidence about literacy from a variety of sources to address issues from early learning through to senior secondary schooling. Professor McNaughton synthesised the available national data and advised the ministry on where best to focus policy work to resolve some of the issues in literacy education. And it’s likely to generate public interest when it’s published. “It might be quite contentious,” he says.

Professor McNaughton sees science and policy advice as mutually informative.

“You see, scientists don’t necessarily understand the policy environment. Policy people have to work quickly sometimes, and it’s important to be able to learn about the policy levers and parameters around tailoring science advice under these conditions. It’s incumbent on the scientist to realise the degrees of freedom and how the science is just one part of the jigsaw.”

However, McNaughton is quick to defend the value of educational research, and he is on a mission to increase the visibility and usefulness of educational science.

“I don’t think we’ve been good advocates in our sector for the critical role of good robust research in education to understand how education contributes to the wellbeing of individuals, whānau, the community, and the nation. For example, there are good estimates of what different levels of qualifications contribute to an individual’s life course, as well as the contribution to the wider economy. It’s not that education can’t add value but there are substantial constraints, such as funding and capability, on the science needed to understand how best to add value, including solving the urgent challenges of equitable outcomes.”

Coming back to the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, McNaughton has been providing advice on the ongoing impact of learning at home and on “digital divides” for equitable access to education.

In a briefing on the transition back to school following the COVID-19 lockdown, Professor McNaughton and his colleagues noted: “Many Māori communities have responded to Level 4 with innovation and adaptation. These are strengths to build on. The transition back to school should build on the work of families, whānau, and young children and students during Level 4 to create even stronger learning outcomes and community relationships. Being aware of and capitalising on what home and whānau have contributed, including the cultural expressions of whānau and Pasifika households, will be important.”

Professor McNaughton concludes, “There’s a lot of work to evaluate and understand what has happened and what we need to do now. And to understand educational phenomena, we need to draw on a number of different disciplines, including psychology, pedagogy, and sociology.

“It’s very stimulating, difficult work, but it’s an extraordinary opportunity for a scientist such as myself to help to turn the science into useful policy.”

From plastics to cannabis

One scientist who is deeply invested in how science can inform policy is Dr Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke who, as a senior researcher and policy analyst with the PMCSA, led the enquiry Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The broad scope of the topic was matched by the breadth of stakeholders involved – people from industry, councils, lobby groups, and in particular, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE).

“I stayed closely connected with key MfE advisors, finding out what they’re doing and what information would be useful and sharing our timelines and work.

“We draw the line at being involved with implementation, but we do want to be useful and accessible. Stakeholders are focused on their particular issue; however, we can show the broader scope to help people think about the whole system. With plastics, there’s no single bullet but lots of different solutions.”

Dr Chiaroni-Clarke says the plastics report, a “mammoth” report, took 10 months to produce. Key policy levers have already begun, such as product stewardship legislation, a proposal to increase the levy for waste to landfill, and consultation on a container return scheme. In addition, business organisations are taking action such as WasteMINZ to standardise recycling across New Zealand.

In July, PMCSA published information on cannabis ahead of this year’s referendum, summarising the social, public health, and revenue issues. It’s also looking at the future of fisheries and how science and innovation can help sustainability and feed into policy decisions.

“Our office ensures we’re connecting with policy advisors as we’re working on an issue. We need to make good connections and ensure that what we’re doing is helpful,” says Dr Chiaroni-Clarke.

Whose science?

As we learnt with COVID-19, having an understanding of science is integral to our lives. Some of the science communicators during this time have become household names, such as epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.

But here we should pause and consider – whose science? In New Zealand, Māori have a large body of mātauranga (knowledge) with its own set of values and practices.

Professor Rangi Matamua won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prize for science communication (announced on 30 June 2020). He says 30 years ago, the winter solstice celebration Matariki was unheard of – now thanks to scholarship and communication, it’s becoming part of our national identity.

Professor Matamua thinks the public sector is becoming aware of mātauranga Māori.

“Some good moves have been made by the public sector to incorporate mātauranga Māori within a strategic or goal level. Whether or not it’s fully integrated at an operational level is another matter.”

He says the benefits of doing so are substantial, for Māori and for all New Zealanders.

“There are some good people in this space doing a lot of good work. People understand how good this could be for all of us, reflecting the values and ideals with the knowledge base.

“I’m focused on supporting mātauranga Māori dissemination and inclusion within everyday lives. The hardest group to convince has been the science community. At times, there has been some resistance. It’s starting to change, but mainstream science has been suspicious of anything that’s new, indigenous, or female.

“I honestly think as a society we’re fortunate to have the democracy and leadership that we have. We have a progressive, caring community, led by the public sector. There are many little steps that build on an ever-growing body of work incorporating mātauranga Māori in everyday lives.”

One example is the 2019 NCEA Review where Māori respondents expressed their concerns that the NCEA system was not equitable for Māori. The government proposed a package of seven changes, one of which was recognising the parity of mātauranga Māori within NCEA and that it has equal value as other bodies of knowledge. It is committed to working closely with Māori to design what this could look like in practice.

The best solution

It’s certainly challenging for policy practitioners who must draw information from multiple sources to come up with solutions to improve the lives of New Zealanders. As the DPMC Policy Project website states: “Policy practitioners need to get better at understanding the lives of the people they are designing policy for; they need to get better at engaging with customers and stakeholders. They need to interpret the available evidence and data. They need to be savvy to the political context and understand what the government wants to achieve. They need to be able to advise on options, and recommend the best solution.”

That’s why policy – and politics – is an art and a science.

To find out about:

The Science Advisor Forum, go to

The impacts of education after study, go to

The project on rethinking plastics, go to

The issues around legalising cannabis, go to

Mātauranga Māori in NCEA, go to