Tag Archives: politics

Flourish with change

Newshub decided to do an “AI” piece today. Expect much more of this kind of “filler” piece. They will go thus… “X says AI will take all our jobs, Y says AI will save us.” These pieces are about as well informed and informing as a lump of 4×2 – good for propping up a slow news day, but not much else. The “more compassionate and moral than NZers” message (which comes from Y) type statement that was made is utter nonsense. AI is just a name we give to the software of machines – AI don’t have compassion or morals. If they appear too, that is simply because they are reflecting the data we feed them… human data with all its flaws.
 
Yes, there is change coming because of this technology. In the past we have been particularly poor at predicting what the future will look like & I think this time the possibilities are far too numerous and complex for us to predict what will be.  Statements like “30-50% of people will lose their jobs” (said X) are simply guesses because there is no precedent on which to base the numbers. All the reports talk about truck drivers and accountants loosing jobs and not a lot else. They are shallow – and probably necessarily so – because we just can’t anticipate what creative people may come up with for this technology.  Having said that, I must admit I just am not sure what to advise my children (as if they’d take it).  Should they all learn to code? Maybe not, as most interaction with machines may not be via coding languages. Should they become artisans for niche markets where the technology doesn’t penetrate?  Maybe for some, but not for all.  I think that perhaps the best we can do is to encourage what enhances creativity and resilience to, or even better a flourishing with, change. It is my hope that flourish with change will become the mantra not just the next generation, but for all current generations, for how we determine to approach the coming changes is likely as important to the well being of our society as the changes themselves.
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To march or not to march?

When I’ve marched in the past it has been to protest or celebrate.  The call for a March for Science, due to take place in New Zealand on the 22nd of April, has me confused as to its purpose.

When I first heard the suggestion of a March for Science in New Zealand I admit I was immediately sceptical (occupational hazard).  The suggestion had come in response to the policies of the Trump administration in the USA.  I am appalled by many of them and by the apparent ignoring of the scientific consensus – but then given the flip-flop on so much that was said in the campaign, it would take a brave person to predict there won’t be a similar flip-flop with respect to climate change policies and the like.  That aside, is the March in New Zealand intended to be a protest against Trump?

Nicola Gaston in a persuasive blog post  writes that with her Bachelor of Arts in her back pocket she will be marching for science and the scientists. Paraphrasing Niemoller she writes “First they came for the scientists, but I was not a scientist, so I did not speak out”. She hit a nerve with me, it is a sentiment that has resonated strongly in me ever since I walked though Auschwitz concentration camp and spent several years living in a country soon after the communists had relinquished power. It is right and proper to speak out for the oppressed, whoever they are and whether we agree with them or not. However, the title of Nicola’s post “Why scientists need to go to the barricades against Trump – and for the humanities” and the first few paragraphs paint the call to march  as a political protest against Trumpian rhetoric and policy.  This, for me, is not an encouragement to march in NZ.  There are many many countries and issues around the world that I abhor and that I think reflect more closely Niemoller’s sentiments– “First they came for the migrants”, “First they came for the children (for the sex trade)”, “First they came for private property” – and I struggle with what I can do about any of them.  However, marching in New Zealand protesting policies in another country is not something I see as effective unless we are demanding action from our government against those countries.

Photo-_Brandon_Wu_(32048341330)

Photo: Brandon Wu 20 Jan 2017 , Wikimedia Commons.

 

Since Nicola wrote that piece, the March organisers have written about the reasons for the March (here and here).  While what has happened in the US is still very much to the fore, the organisers’ attentions seems to have turned towards a protest against policies of the current government “our current government has and continues to be ineffective in defending our native species and environment” (Geni- Christchurch organiser), “The government believes they are improving freshwater, yet they aren’t utilizing NZ freshwater ecology research outputs or freshwater scientists for these decisions.” (Erin-Palmerston North), “you only have to look at the Land and Water forum to open the discussion about the government ignoring the advice of scientists in regards to water quality.” (Steph-Auckland), and on the March for Science websiteThe dismissal of scientific voices by politicians is perhaps best encapsulated by our former Prime Minister’s dismissal of concerns about the impact of our dairy industry on water quality

 

Critique

The organisers in the spirit of peer review invite critique.  My first thought is that if people want to protest the government’s actions with respect to water quality – then please do so.  But, please don’t dress it up as a “March for Science” as if NZ politicians are inherently anti-science.  It comes across as a belief that the NZ Government is tarred with the same brush as the Trump administration with respect to its treatment of science.  I don’t think that comparison is fair.

As an aside, I believe we must be careful with the generalisation “anti-science”, a phrase I’ve regularly heard from the voices and pens of scientists in the past few years.  The phrase has almost always been used to describe people who take stances in opposition to the scientific consensus on matters such as vaccinations, fluoridation, or climate change.  I don’t believe these people are anti-science per se – indeed, they often try (and fail) to use science to back their views. Furthermore, they may well embrace the findings of science in general.  Troy Campbell and Lauren Griffen’s recent post in Scientific America is a good panacea against the loose and pejorative use of the term “anti-science”.

Another aspects of the call to March that I find difficult is the statement “We acknowledge that in Aotearoa New Zealand the scientific community has yet to live up to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and that there is an ongoing process of decolonization required to achieve greater inclusion of Māori in the scientific community.” I admit I’m not entirely sure what this means. However, as a member of the scientific community it sounds like I’m being slapped over the wrist.  Further, I feel it is accusing me of some form of racism.  I’m sure this was not the intention, but it is the impression I get and one I don’t like getting.

This is all a pity, as I’d hoped that the March for Science would be more of a celebration with the added value of standing in solidarity with scientists who have been silenced or disenfranchised.  To be fair, celebration is obviously on the mind of some of the organisers such as Cindy from Dunedin “together to celebrate the quest for knowledge and the use of knowledge to protect and enhance life… hope that the March for Science Global initiative will empower scientists and other knowledge-seekers to continue their important work and to share it widely.”  However, this does not seem to reflect the overall tone of the call.

One of the goals of the March is to highlight that “Good scientists can be political.”  I applaud this sentiment and it is something I have tried to be take on board in the past – twice I stood as a political candidate in the general election (2005 and 2008).  Beyond protest, I would encourage all scientists to spend a few minutes with their local MP explaining why and what they do.  The temptation is to bemoan the lack of funding, but I would suggest that funding follows understanding, and we need to engage with politicians and as we do so to recognise the complexity of the decision making with all the competing interests that they have to make.

I began with a question, to march or not to march?  As I’ve written this, I’ve come to the conclusion that, on balance, the call has not resonated with where I’m at, or with what I think of as effective dialogue with politicians, therefore I will not be marching.  I appreciate that others will disagree, nevertheless I wish them a very positive experience.

Policy our lives depend on: Health research in election 2014

We all care about health – ours, our family’s, and even that of one or two politicians (perhaps). We also care that the 15 billion dollar annual health budget is spent on health care that works.  I contend that both these cares are only as good as the health research that underpins the treatments we receive.  Therefore, I have compiled what I could discover about health research policy from the policy documents available online of the political parties contending the current NZ general election. I have tried to focus on where health research in a particular area is promised or on health research infrastructure. In some places I’ve extracted from a more general science and/or innovation policy those policies I think likely to impact health research.  Obviously some parties are still releasing policy.  I invite them to send me any policies that they think relevant and I will update.  I think you will be surprised at what is missing in the list below.

The parties are in reverse alphabetical order.

United Future*

Health Policy: http://www.unitedfuture.org.nz/policy/health

  • Increase funding for health research to bring New Zealand’s funding up to at least the OECD average as a proportion of GDP;
  • Establish a national register for Type 1 Diabetes, a diabetes research fund, and increase funding for Type 2 Diabetes testing;
  • Make no change to the legal status of cannabis for medicinal use until a robust regulatory testing regime is developed that proves cannabis use causes minimal harm to an individual’s health
  • Introduce a sabbatical scheme that would allow health professionals to take a year out of work every five years to update their skills and knowledge;
  • Promote more research to address youth related health problems such as suicide, alcoholism, and bulimia.

Science Policy: http://www.unitedfuture.org.nz/policy/research-science-and-technology

Too long to put in detail, but policies such as “simplifying different funding mechanisms” and specifying biotech as one of half a dozen key research areas requiring focus are likely to impact on health research.

Health spokesperson (Associate Minister of Health): Peter Dunne MP peter.dunne@parliament.govt.nz

 

New Zealand First

Health Policy: http://nzfirst.org.nz/policy/health

  • Ensure an on-going commitment to the funding of health research, research institutes, and for training.

Science Policy: None

RS&T Portfolio holder: Tracey Martin MP tracey.martin@parliament.govt.nz

Health Portfolio holder: Barbara Steward MP   barbara.stewart@parliament.govt.nz

 

National

Health Policy: https://www.national.org.nz/news/features/health

No specific policy on any health research

Science Policy: None

Health spokesperson (Minister of Health): Tony Ryall tony.ryall@national.org.nz

Science spokesperson (Minister of Science and Innovation): Steven Joyce steven.joyce@national.org.nz

 

Maori Party

Policy: http://maoriparty.org/our-policies-kawanatanga/

  • We will support: … Roadshows to promote educational pathways in areas where Māori are under-represented – ie health science academies (Te Kura Pūtaiao Hauora) or science camps.

Science Policy: No specific policy but some comments in the policy above about research and development include establishing an investment fund for Māori Research and Development which may impact on health research.

Health or Science spokespeople: Unknown

Contact: Teururoa Flavell MP teururoa.flavell@parliament.govt.nz

 

Mana

Health Policy: http://mana.net.nz/policy/policy-health/

No policy specifically dealing with health research

Science Policy: None

Contact: Hone Harawira MP hone.harawira@parliament.govt.nz

 

Labour

Health Policy: http://campaign.labour.org.nz/full_health_policy

  • We need a health system that is based on evidence about what works – not fixated on manufactured targets or political slogans

Health spokesperson: Annette King annette.king@parliament.govt.nz

Science Policyhttps://www.labour.org.nz/sites/default/files/issues/science_and_innovation_policy.pdf (UPDATE – released 25 August)

  • Reinstate post-doctoral fellowships for recent PhD graduates (scaling up to %6m per year)
  • Prioritise an increase in our public science spend to link New Zealand to the OECD average over time
  • review and reform the National Science Challenges, on the basis of advice from the science community and building on the success of respected funding bodies such as the Marsden Fund

    provide integrated support for innovation across the Crown Research Institutes and tertiary institutions, and through private-sector research activities, and sectoral and regional initiatives

    review the criteria of the Performance Based Research Fund to ensure that a broad range of research success is recognised

    support research in universities, including through a continued commitment to Centres of Research Excellence

    encourage closer association between business and university commercialisation centres to ensure ‘discoveries’ within the universities are most effectively brought to market and have the best chance for success

    support and foster a collaborative university system, where each of our universities is enabled to focus on its areas of research and teaching strength.

  • support research in universities, including through:
    • a continued commitment to Centres of Research Excellence,
    • ensuring the sustainability of the Marsden Fund and other research funds
    • supporting the career pathways of graduates, to encourage our researchers to develop their careers and contribute to New Zealand.

Science Spokesperson: Moana Mackey MP moana.mackey@parliament.govt.nz

 

Internet

Health Policy: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1g4RY7Sh-vYZN1WAIx_A-AEZlYzNjMhzY81KnfKLMGp0/edit

Copyright and Open Research Policy: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Le3rY0wlh9tJaBzpxK5xrpeWID-j5FmeE4dqONdQATE/edit

  • Mandate that all taxpayer-funded research be open access with the public able to freely access and re-use it.

Health or Science spokespeople: Unknown

Contact: hello@internet.org.nz

 

Green

Health Policy: No general health policy, but some on particular issues.

Update 25 Aug:  I have been informed that the Greens have a health policy on a different web site https://home.greens.org.nz/policy/health-policy.  Their election site http://www.greens.org has no health policy.

No policy specifically dealing with health research.

Green innovation Policy: https://www.greens.org.nz/policy/smarter-economy/smart-green-innovation

Some aspects of this policy may impact health research, in particular:

  • $1 billion of new government funding over three years for research and development to kick-start a transformational shift in how our economy creates wealth;
  • The Green Party will fund an additional 1,000 places at tertiary institutions for students of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and the physical sciences.

Health or Science spokespeople: Unknown

Contact greenparty@greens.org.nz

 

Conservatives

Health Policy: None

Science Policy: None

Health or Science spokespeople: Unknown

Contact: Office@conservativeparty.org.nz

 

ACT

Health Policy: http://www.act.org.nz/policies/health-0

No policy specifically dealing with health research

Science Policy: No science policy

Health or Science spokespeople: Unknown

Contact: info@act.org.nz

________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Disclaimer: I used to be a member of United Future and made submissions on the health and science policies in 2008. A few echoes of those submissions remain in the policies.

A more complete equation

An equation for decision making on public health interventions

An equation for decision making on public health interventions

 

Lots of chat from fellow science bloggers (see here, herehere and here) about fluoridation following the recent Hamilton City Council decision. Naturally most of the posts focus on the science and the logic (or otherwise) of the arguments around fluoridation.  I have no knowledge about fluoridation per se and have nothing to add to the science.  What I did think was necessary was to posit an equation which gives the debate and many others like it (folic acid, vaccinations etc etc etc) a wider context.

My simplistic equation points out that any decision on a public health intervention involves far more than scientists and far more than science.  Obviously, financial costs ranging from what it may cost to provide an intervention, to the impact of less ongoing health associated costs and greater productivity in those benefiting from the intervention are an essential part of the decision making.  I would love a health economist to weigh in and give us a better idea of what an equation may look like. Questions of rights and responsibilities are harder to quantify, but no less important than the scientific and economic ones.  Indeed, I think they are the most important as how we deal with them defines who we are as a society.  In the case of folic acid, for example, this means balancing the rights of the unborn child against the rights of the mother and of the rest of society.  While not a complete parallel to the abortion debate, it is familiar territory.  At its heart is how society cares for the most vulnerable, whilst also acknowledging the rights of others to make choices for themselves.  The final part of the equation involves the decision makers, spare some sympathy for the politicians here as they grapple with the complexities of science, economics and ethics.  This year is local body election year, and next year we have a general election.  My challenge is that if you care enough about these issues to read a blog post, spend a little more time getting to know the candidates and try to figure out if they are up to making complex decisions on your behalf.  If so, give them your vote.