From the Chair

Suzanne Snively

Suzanne Snively
TINZ Chair

This year’s 47th Earth Day had an added impetus because of the US Government’s attitude to transparent evidence-based debate and science in general.

Fifty years ago, demonstrations in the United States led by radical activists concerned about one thing or another, were almost a weekly event. It was the near death of dirty Great Lake Eerie, and, the state of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River’s spontaneous combustion that activated the public, led by conservationists and scientists.

This resulted in World Earth Day, on 20 April 1970. Records from the time reported that 20 million Americans, then around 20% of the US population, took part in events across the country, including marches, other demonstrations, workshops and teach-ins. World Earth Day has been recognised on a Saturday close to 20 April every year since.

The US Government’s dismissal of research and backing down on climate change initiatives has caused scientists to once again become activists, demonstrating through street marches with the Global March for Science on 22 April 2017.

New Zealanders were the first in the world to march. A collaboration, joined together by the NZ Association of Scientists, marched under the banner of:

“Science, not silence. We, the people, march for science and knowledge to be reaffirmed as fundamental to the democratic decision making that supports society in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Demonstrations were held in six New Zealand locations, preceding the more than 600 marches throughout the world. The International March for Science was a non-partisan movement to celebrate science and the role it plays in everyday lives. Thousands turned out in most major US cities as well as in Berlin, Munich, Gottingen, Bonn, Heidelberg, London, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, Dublin, Zagreb and Kangerlussuaq.

Stanford University Science Historian, Robert Proctor, was quoted by Wikipedia as saying that the march was “pretty unprecedented in terms of the scale and breadth of the scientific community…” and was rooted in “a broader perception of a massive attack on notions of truth that are sacred to the scientific community.”

While promoting the role of science was the international theme, the New Zealand Government’s support for scientific research has grown, both through its research policy and its increased investment in research through Crown Research Institutes, tertiary educators and other scientific research programmes.

Scientists marching in New Zealand wanted to ensure the wider public understands why the Government’s support for research policy is important. A number also voiced issues with science policy and funding.

Generally, (except for politically-sensitive topics like climate change, housing, water quality and sugar-reduction), this Government’s objective has been to maintain and improve the standards that exist for quality research.

The Government’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has played a major role in defining the criteria for evidence-based research to underpin government policy. This is important, whether the research is carried out by physical scientists, social scientists, engineers or any other area where data is examined to better understand how things work.

Prime Minister, Bill English, has been a proponent of connecting social policy research across government agencies and is a supporter of making integrated data available to trained data analysts through Statistics New Zealand. Next month’s 2017/18 Budget will include funding to set up a new agency, with Amy Adams as Minister, to lead government-wide connected-up social policy research about vulnerable New Zealanders. This agency will largely operate in the “space” where the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (SUPERU) has been.

In December 2015, SUPERU, published a protocol with 5 principles for agencies to carry out, commission and/or communicate social science research and evaluation. The principles, originally drawn up in the United Kingdom, are:

  1. The outputs of social science research and evaluation conducted or commissioned by government are made publicly available.
  2. All government social science research and evaluation outputs are released promptly.
  3. The way government social science research and evaluation outputs are released promotes public trust.
  4. Clear communication arrangements are in place for all outputs.
  5. Responsibility for the quality and release of social science research and evaluation is clear.

With the advent of “alternative facts” by the US presidency, these straightforward principles are critical for directing social science research.

Research done in different contexts, based on different concepts can lead to contrary conclusions. These principles ensure that there is transparency in the reasoning behind conclusions and to the data and analysis, all of which provide politicians, policy-advisors and the public with sufficient information to think for themselves without having to do the original research.

Implementation of the SUPERU Principles, will contribute to building resistance to any trend to replace good evidence with alternative facts. By staying ahead in this way, our country is well-placed to keep its researchers here and to attract others wishing to move to a place where quality research is valued.

Our support and appreciation of quality scientific inquiry has led to hundreds of scientists making inquiries about immigrating to New Zealand!

Suzanne Snively, Chair
Transparency International New Zealand Inc.

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