On Thursday night I was lucky enough to be able to attend the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Awards.
This is an annual event celebrating the achievements of some of the younger members of the science community. It is well attended, and the Minister of Research Science and Technology usually gives a speech.
I have heard Wayne Mapp speak a couple of times now on science. He says all the things people want to hear and makes all the right noises, but it is clearly spin. It would be an overstatement to say the sciences are being completely ignored by the current government, but it would not be inaccurate to state that the current government has placed no major emphasis on scientific achievement. Innovation, science and technology are the only ways we'll ever "close the gap" with Australia (to borrow a phrase everyone keeps using), but nobody in government wants to acknowledge that fact.
Still, these events are about the young scientists, not the politicians, nor the university and funding agency bigwigs. And the speeches of the good and the great did at times seem interminable. But the highlight was seeing the work of the award winners, and hearing them talk with passion about their research.
I met one of the award winners and had a chance to talk to him about his work. He is Matthew Gerrie, and he was featured in today's Herald. He has been using scientific techniques to prove how truly unreliable eyewitness testimony can be in criminal proceedings. It's likely that false eyewitness testimony has led to a large number of people in this country being imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Matthew has been working with the New Zealand chapter of the Innocence Network, a group of organisations around the world that seek to expose miscarriages of justice.
We all know that a person's prejudices can influence their impressions of an event. But it's clear from the science that what people think they see is often frighteningly different from what is actually before them. However, the testimony of an eyewitness is still some of the most powerful evidence to put before a jury.
Matthew's work involves providing better training for police and others involved in dealing with crime, so that the psychological factors influencing false identification can be minimised. He told me that the police are very receptive to this training, because they want to make sure they get the right person and avoid legal challenges. However, he said that some crown prosecution lawyers didn't want to have anything to do with his work. It is to be hoped they are only a small number.
Hopefully I get to go next year. And I can always hope by next year there's a new minister...