Extended Q&A from PSA Progressive Thinking Webinar

7 Jun 2020 14:30 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

There were some great additional questions at my recent PSA Progressive Thinking Webinar, "Restoring research for the restoration of well-beings." You can see the draft chapter at the PSA page. If you want to see the video, I hope it goes up at the PSA page, but for now the best option is to catch my main presentation (also below), and then the rest of the Q&A.

I'm posting answers to most of the additional questions below. Register here for the next PSA session Wednesday 10 June at Noon.

Q: Do you think that it will be easier or harder for scientists to speak out in the post COVID world? On the one hand science has never been more important but on the other their is a populist reaction against science.

A: It will be harder if jobs are at risk and the finances of institutions are fragile. I hope society will review and reinforce protections, because we need our researchers and thinkers to be active, creative and unafraid to propose and develop bold and innovative solutions.

Q: Can Troy also explain where "reusable' fits in - by the citizens who fund science research via their taxes?

A: My idea of reusable is that the principles, data, or models science develops should be accessible, useable and useful. Reusable is the ultimate proof of this: we want to see knowledge being re-used and adapted.

Q: Please don't forget all of the research done by local, regional and even central government. We are doing a lot of applied research. Local govt does have a problem connecting to the CRI's because of funding stream linkage gaps (the money does not flow) and this can limit our research capacity.

A: I agree, and that’s one of the strengths of having the PSA (which represents CRI, central government and regional council staff) host this webinar and chapter. I tried to highlight the opportunity without going too deep into this. Recall that I explained research can be both fundamental and applied, and we often create an unnecessary separation by assuming it is one or the other. One of the newest research classifications driving our funding is investigator-led vs mission-led. Again, big mission-led initiatives may not serve local needs well, and appear to limit the innovation we need. There’s no reason small investigator-led research can’t aid in larger missions, by working well with communities and local government. That’s an idea that I hope the next speaker can develop further.

Q: As a Maori academic researcher I've found it really difficult to feel heard or understood during Covid by my university who seem to be very much focused on doing BAU as if all that changed over lockdown was the venue. My observation was that with the anxiety and concern in the early stages of lockdown when we were unsure as a country how this was going to pan out, was borne out more obviously in Maori because most of us can name those in our whakapapa we have lost to other pandemics. The push to continue on without concern seemed so disconnected to me. Even now as researchers start returning to the university grounds, I feel confused by the disconnect between what just happened and now. I'm interested in your response. Do you see this too?

A: From my perspective, this is a very good observation, but not a question I can answer. What I do see is strong international evidence that existing inequality divides in education and engagement with knowledge are quickly turning into chasms during lockdowns. It’s less clear what’s happened in New Zealand: there are some worrisome stats, but also anecdotal reports I’ve heard of whānau and hapū doing well. Reports from well-engaged students at Waikato are really positive, but we all worry about the students we don't hear from. I particularly worry about staff feeling overtasked and undervalued, and experiences like yours.

More broadly, I’m pleased that equity and diversity was an important part of multiple pieces of modelling undertaken by Te Pūnaha Matatini to inform NZ’s response, so there wasn’t a vacuum of information nationally. That work did point to inequality in outcomes if we didn’t make progress toward elimination of the disease.

Frankly, everyone’s heads are spinning. No one has really planned for what comes next, and particularly how economics and finance in our institutions will intersect with the disconnect you note.

Q: One very big issue is the storage and shearing of data. We need a database that can hold all of the data sources and types and interface with all of the institutions. How do we resolve this issue?

A: Unfortunately having a single big database for 'everything' never works. Databases and applications that use data need to be purpose built. The databases are best if they’re simple and durable; the apps have to deal with a lot of the complexity, and need to be refreshed. This requires funding, policy, and strategy.

One of our big problems is institutions that limit access to data in the hope of being able to sell or license it. This limits use in the public good, and often prevents development of the biggest, most compelling uses that were hard to imagine at first. Good practice making data useable is one of things that can be funded by ’shovel-ready’ support for research institutions (and some was funded during the week since my talk).

Q: While CRIs and regional councils have a good relationship generally and the research the CRIs do often has to provide buy-in from councils, when it comes to regional policy development, you can really only get fully impartial science direction from regional council scientists because CRIs have a commercial imperative to, for example, generate research programmes that tie the council in to ongoing dependency.

A: I’d argue that applied sciences can never be truly impartial. An important tenet of the environmental and health sciences is that that humans are part of the system being studied. Recognition of this was a revelation for scientists when I was doing my PhD during the 1990s in the newly formed Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at Berkeley. That recognition has been slow to come to New Zealand (at least in environmental science), but it will be important to understand that neither councils nor CRIs can be fully 'impartial'. Councils will be influenced by their policy, planning and operational objectives, and CRI scientists will have more or less independence depending on how they and their institution is funded. A key point of the webinar and chapter was that more stable funding can help.

Roger Pielke, Jr, has provided widely used model for understanding the challenge, where scientists are perhaps most effective and trusted as ‘honest brokers’. Often a solution is to include social scientists, who have long been familiar with this problem in research, in multi-disciplinary teams. But we can’t always afford big teams, so it will be best if we encourage scientists to understand rather than deny their biases, as they interact efficiently with policy, management and other decision processes that use knowledge and research.

Q: I would have liked to ask Troy if he identifies the presence of any cognitive biases on the part of researchers or funders in the NZ science research system? (i.e. confirmation bias, optimism bias, status quo bias, loss aversion etc. )

A: There absolutely are. There are many of us at the interface of science and policy who have found Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning work extremely helpful, across many of the biases you mentioned. Combinations of loss aversion and status-quo bias seem to pose a real risk in coming months. I tried to highlight another relevant concern: the potential fallacies in separating basic and applied science. If I’d talked longer, I would have underscored that the conception of ‘pure’ science is dangerous simply because it encourages ignorance of potential and actual biases.

Putting this into practice, we can recognise that many issues (including those I talked about) relate back to the ability to access science and research as process or as a body of knowledge and human capability (Elite Pluralism). This realisation underlies Pielke’s classification I mentioned above. There’s also a risk or invisible bias when science gets silenced. These books and simple recognition of gender bias in science are good starting points. For gender bias, mentioned one recent study, and an impressive new one appeared this week. Yet, let’s not forget the risk Māori and Pacifika representation in the research system faces during this crisis. This matters because the crisis can worsen the impact of our biases if we remain blind to them. With an uncertain road ahead, we need to keep our eyes open, be wary of biases, and keep working together as a team of five million.

Register here for the next PSA session Wednesday 10 June at Noon.

Troy Baisden – NZAS President

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