The high public cost of muzzling scientists

Workers decontaminate a building near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. At the time, ...
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Workers decontaminate a building near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. At the time, New Zealand government agencies responsible for nuclear research refused to talk to the media, leaving people in the dark about whether the country faced any risks.

 

OPINION: To whom is the first duty of a scientist in a crisis – to the politicians who fund them, the employer who pays them, or the wider public, desperate for information? In the course of writing my new book, Silencing Science, I have found that scientists' duty to the public often comes last.

The Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes, for example, put New Zealand science on the spot. Cantabrians wanted to know why them? Why now? And what might happen next?

These were not easy questions for scientists to answer. There was a lot that wasn't known about the geological structures that lay below the city, and even in the best of times, the forecasting of aftershocks is an uncertain business.

But it was much more difficult than it should have been. Scientists at Crown Research Institute GNS Science were focused on briefing officials to ensure that government had the best information. Others found themselves challenged by officials when they tried to disseminate aftershock forecasts, lest they undermine the recovery. Communications were supposed to be channelled through the joint emergency operations centre, but science had a low priority and the centre became a bottleneck.

These problems extend well beyond the Canterbury earthquakes.

After explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Kiwis were left without expert advice on the risks from radioactive fallout. Our government agencies responsible for nuclear research refused to talk to the media, only issuing terse written statements days after the event that radiation would not reach our shores.

In the days following Fonterra's product recall after its botulism scare, the country's leading food safety experts were muzzled because of the commercial risks, leaving the public in the dark.

In 2014, more than 150 New Zealand scientists confirmed in a survey that they had been prevented from talking to the media by their employers or for fearing of losing their funding.

Scientists at our Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) are particularly vulnerable. NIWA, the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, refuses to provide advice on climate change policy, but at the same time consults for the oil and gas industry. "How as a CRI scientist can I ever speak out against an industry that my CRI serves? I just cannot," wrote one scientist under the protection of anonymity.

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Scientists who do speak out can find themselves the victims of misinformation campaigns orchestrated by corporate lobbyists. Some are even criticised by their own colleagues for violating unwritten rules that govern who can speak for science.

The silence of New Zealand's scientists means that the government freely ignores the advice of its own science advisor. Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, has found that his advice falls on deaf ears when it stands to hurt the profits of big business.

The Royal Society of New Zealand, our peak scientific body, is paid to advise the government. When one of the Society's expert panels recently recommended that the government take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions, Climate Change Minister, Paula Bennett, simply said: "I hope it sparks more innovation and discussions on how we achieve this."

And its advice is as easily silenced as it is dismissed. Last year one Royal Society advisory panel was shut down before it could report at the request of the government.

The Prime Minister has a science advisor. I believe it is time that the public had one too. This is why in Silencing Science, I call for New Zealand to establish a Parliamentary Commission for Science.

It would be modelled on Dr Jan Wright's Parliamentary Commission for the Environment. It would be independent of the government of the day, and would have the power to investigate claims of scientific misconduct, while protecting whistle-blowers.

Unlike the role that Sir Peter Gluckman has played, the Commission's mandate would not extend to matters of science funding and policy. This would allow it to maintain the trust of scientists and the organisations they work for.

The Commission would have the responsibility and resources to ensure that the public and Parliament was well advised in times of crisis. It would also procure advice from the science community on matters of long-term importance for the well being of New Zealanders, such as public health and climate. It would challenge the government where it saw scientific advice being ignored.

The public is demanding greater transparency from the science community, something that our current scientific institutions cannot, or will not, provide. A Commission for Science would forge a new relationship between scientists and an increasingly frustrated public.

A Commission will ensure that science is silent no more.

Shaun Hendy is the Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems and Networks, and a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland.

 - Stuff

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