Kia ora koutou
In March, I posted a few quiet thoughts in the wake of the terrible events of March 15th and reflected on the need for love, support, community building and showing humanity in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. That was not the time for scientists to rush forth clutching an evidence base. I also foreshadowed that once the immediate shock had passed, we as a science community could reflect on the issues that the tragedy had surfaced and look at the evidence for how we can change things for the better. Now is a good time for an update.
Beyond the immediate response phase, the Chief Science Advisors and surrounding research community have been occupied with how to best inform policy efforts focused on supporting the people of Christchurch as they recover from this trauma. Much of this has been behind the scenes, as various government departments coordinate their efforts and call on different individuals for advice to get evidence-informed support in place as soon as possible. Typically, researchers are not well placed to assist these efforts, as the pace of research and the practice of deep reflection, writing, peer review and publication are traditionally slow and ponderous. The insights that come from these practices will continue to inform our understanding of what happened in the years to come, but are hard to harness on an appropriate timescale for a practical response. This is one of the defining challenges of the science advisor roles.
However, the psychology community decided they could play a more urgent role in responding to the tragedy, and put together a Rapid Response Issue (RRI) of the New Zealand Psychology Journal. The RRI brought together local experts and opinion leaders and – mindful of the low Muslim population in Aotearoa New Zealand and our (thankfully) limited experience with acts of terror – solicited expert views from Australia, the UK and the US to add to our own voices and succeeded in publishing the issue one month after the tragedy. Obviously, this represents the voices of a select group of researchers from the single discipline of psychology – and other researchers will bring different perspectives with time. With that caveat, however, the volume pulled together a lot of very useful commentary and research from a community who have a lot to offer as government is framing a response.
Once alerted to this material, the Prime Minister was interested in a briefing on the RRI to read on the plane to Paris, as part of her preparation for the Christchurch Call summit. The briefing was prepared at pace by myself, well supported by Marc Wilson (Journal Editor), Ian Lambie (Chief Science Advisor for Justice) and Stuart McNaughton (Chief Science Advisor for Education). I am especially grateful to Marc for giving up his time to do this. Beyond the immediate goal of briefing the PM, the document may inform more complete pieces of evidence synthesis across the Chief Science Advisor Forum and government. You can read it here.
Reflecting on this activity, it is worth noting that these academic commentaries and research notes were produced efficiently and effectively – much more rapidly than is normal in academia – and, as a result, were not destined to solely sit on dusty shelves in a library, read only by future specialist commentators. This is a briefing on a particular volume of published scholarship – not a full piece of evidence synthesis claiming to be comprehensive. However, it did provide a valuable resource on a time scale that was useful to inform the Prime Minister and her officials ahead of a hard deadline. It shows that in 2019, the research community can respond rapidly and usefully, and strengthen the research-policy interface on a timeframe that is helpful to government. I think this serves as a useful model for future pieces of work from my Office and encourage more researchers across the academic spectrum to engage with the Chief Science Advisors and strengthen the researcher-policy interface.
More importantly, a collection of researchers who had thought deeply about issues relevant to the support of a traumatised community were able to offer support to that community. A hat tip to the authors who contributed, the editorial team who put the issue together in haste, and especially Marc, who saw an opportunity to make a difference, led the community to deliver, and worked hard with myself, Ian and Stuart to adapt the content to a useful form. Ka pai.