Returning to New Zealand, the next night I found that I was faced with a speech to Beca’s leadership conference in Auckland—there were about 200 engineers and other professionals present. Beca is one of the success stories of New Zealand’s knowledge sector, showing that we can export our engineering expertise throughout Asia. I am never good at after-dinner speaking, but fortunately they agreed, given my jetlagged state, that I could speak before dinner.
I spoke about two themes. The first was the need for New Zealand to embrace intellectualism and how our journey as a country had not really done so. In many ways that explained how we had ended up in a situation where basic research is generally not understood to be a critical investment in building our society as well as our economy. I spoke about the need to avoid over-simplistic linear thinking about the relationship between science and innovation, and the need for our country to value our few public intellectuals such as Sir Paul Callaghan.
I then segued to discuss matters of scientific communication. I returned to a theme I have spoken about a lot in the past year: how to communicate complex or post-normal science. The challenge is not so much in the media as within the science community. It involves issues such as how to communicate honestly about the limits of knowledge, and how to acknowledge the values dimensions. The latter are properly the domain of the public and the politician; scientists’ views on those have no more validity than anyone else’s.
I discussed the dilemma of the inferential gap between what we might know about something like climate change and the need for policy makers to make decisions, and how science should be communicated in such situations. I pointed out the problems which can emerge when public scientists conflate values inappropriately with the knowledge base, and how that can lead to a loss of trust in the public scientist.
Judging by the questions that followed, the messages were well received.