Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Prominent scientist talks about Silencing Science

One of New Zealand's most prominent scientists, and the winner of the Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize, says too many scientists feel constrained in speaking publicly. Professor Shaun Hendy talks to science reporter Jamie Morton before the release of his book, Silencing Science.
Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / Greg Bowker
Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / Greg Bowker

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. While I was president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, I was involved in several issues where science was being silenced. Sadly, I've now found many more examples.

Almost all the journalists I talk to have anecdotes of times when they have been unable to get comment from scientists.

Some have now lost trust in our science organisations.

This is a really sad state of affairs

I want this book to be a wake-up call for the science community and our research organisations - we need to take our responsibilities to the public more seriously.

Q. You seem to have picked up the science communication baton from your late mentor, Sir Paul Callaghan. Why did it become important for you?

A. Paul inspired many of those active in science communication today, and as a result, the community of scientists interested in public engagement is much more diverse than it was in Paul's heyday.

I've always enjoyed talking about science, to my colleagues and the public, and Paul encouraged me to take it seriously.

He was very clear about the social contract that exists between scientists and society; the public funds most of our work, so the public should know and have a say about what it is getting for this funding.

Q. Presently, what would you suspect most scientists feel about speaking out about their work? Do they actually want to?

A. I think most scientists do realise the importance of talking about their work, and a lot do want to contribute to public awareness, but it terrifies many of us.

I was certainly very nervous when I first started blogging and talking to journalists; what would my colleagues think if I made a mistake or was misreported?

During the Canterbury earthquakes, seismologists worried enormously about the consequences of what they were saying.

Overstate the risks and the insurance industry might collapse; understate the risks and people might be killed.

Q. What confines or hampers them from doing so? Are they being "gagged" as it were? And have these barriers become worse?

A. In the book, I write about what happened during the Fonterra botulism scare.

Almost all the country's experts in foodborne illness either had commercial relationships with Fonterra and didn't want to put those in jeopardy, or were advising the government and not allowed to talk to the media.

One scientist said they had been "muzzled".

Unfortunately, this sort of situation is all too common.

Although the public owns the Crown Research Institutes, these are increasingly under pressure to find private funding, and as a result many have very strict media policies -- much like the rules you would find in private companies -- that actively filter what scientists can say to journalists.

This is not to say that publicly employed scientists shouldn't work with the private sector, but in a science community that is as thinly spread as New Zealand's it can mean that in times of crisis we simply run out of experts who are free speak.

Q. Are there political or policy pressures?

A. Yes. This came up several times when I interviewed people for the book.

Scientists will be told to "not embarrass the minister", particularly those in Crown Research Institutes, but this also happens in universities.

Scientists anxiously watch the Government's budget announcements every year, and many worry that speaking out or challenging government policy will put science funding at risk.

After the science community challenged Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce publicly about the axing of post-doctoral fellowships for young scientists, he simply shelved the issue.

Last year, Joyce's ministry, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, removed all reference to post-doctoral fellowships from its major policy document, the National Statement of Science Investment, despite a strong consensus among scientists that something needs to be done.

The message this sends is that if you speak out, you'll be punished.

Q. How confident are you in the media as a conduit?

A. We have some outstanding science journalists in New Zealand, and the Science Media Centre in Wellington has been able to make science much more accessible to journalists over the past few years.

However, the changing media landscape means there are fewer specialist science journalists working today, and those who are still hanging in there are stretched very thin.

We've also lost many investigative reporters and a lot of capability in current affairs recently.

I've heard that Radio New Zealand might cut Our Changing World, the only dedicated science broadcast show in New Zealand.

The long-term implications of this worry me.

Q. Have there been disasters where scientists have been misrepresented in the press?

A. This does happen, although in the cases I examine in Silencing Science, the major problems arose when the press couldn't find experts to talk to.

Sometimes the science ends up being filtered through officials or corporate spokespeople who don't have a deep understanding of what they are saying. Gary Romano got the science spectacularly wrong on Campbell Live during the Fonterra scare, and before the l'Aquila earthquake, a local official misrepresented the science in order to avoid worrying the public, when they could have taken steps to protect themselves.

In cases like these, the media need to insist on talking to directly experts.

Q. Conversely, how has an absence of good science communication been disastrous in situations? Can you cite some examples where, say, a vacuum has been filled with perhaps less informed but actually available experts?

A. In 2014 there was an outbreak of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, a foodborne illness that can be caught from uncooked vegetables.

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) and ESR, the Crown Research Institute that was investigating the cause for MPI, were both very tight-lipped. Neither organisation allowed their scientists to front to the public and explain their findings.

Instead, Canterbury DHB Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey went public after he read ESR's preliminary report.

The end result is that MPI and ESR looked like they were hiding their findings from the public in order to protect businesses that had sold potentially contaminated vegetables.

During the Fonterra scare, all sorts of speculation filled the vacuum left by the muzzled scientists.

One article claimed that the botulism was due to the use of glyphosate (a weedkiller) on farms.

Luckily Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, although not a specialist in foodborne illness, was able to debunk this in her blog, Infectious Thoughts.

She was also the scientist who pointed out that Gary Romano had got the science wrong on Campbell Live.

Unfortunately Wiles has been criticised by colleagues in the science community for speaking out on topics beyond her specialist expertise.

Q. In many areas - from climate scepticism to more cynical attacks on health researchers - we are seeing scientists being publicly challenged or targeted by people outside the scientific community, often with bias or vested interests. How can scientists hope to fight back?

A. Scientists have to become more media savvy so that their messages are more effective, and more scientists need to speak out, so that individuals are less vulnerable to personal attacks.

When there are only one or two scientists talking, it is much easier to paint their views as extreme, or just one side of a scientific debate, than when there is a chorus of scientists speaking out.

Q. What potential do you see in social media as a direct bridge to the public?

A. Social media makes science far more accessible to the public.

You can now hear from scientists in the lab as they do their work or follow them as they discuss their findings with their colleagues.

You can get a much better feel for how science works and how scientists think.

Social media is also democratising communication.

You can see the thoughts and ideas of PhD students as they learn their trade, alongside those of the professors and senior scientists, who have traditionally had the dominant voice in the media.

Q. In your book, you suggest a new parliamentary body to represent science. Why?

A. I see a gap between the advice that Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, offers to government, and the advice that the Royal Society of New Zealand develops with government funding.

Neither Sir Peter nor the Royal Society is sufficiently independent of the government to challenge policies that are not supported by the science.

For example, I was on a Royal Society expert advisory panel last year that was dissolved after the Government decided it didn't want to hear the advice being prepared.

I believe we need an independent body, a Commission for Science, responsible to Parliament rather than the government of the day, so it can provide advice to the public on science.

A Parliamentary Commission for Science could also deal with scientific whistle-blowers.

During my time as president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, we had to deal with a number of cases of alleged misconduct by research organisations.

Several of these were referred to us by the Royal Society, because the association is independent and less vulnerable to political pressure.

Unfortunately, the association is not really resourced to deal with these situations, some of which really required deeper investigation than we could undertake.

A leaked internal email from Niwa also revealed attempts by that organisation to undermine the association's membership base after it expressed concerns that commercial conflicts were undermining trust in science.

A commission with powers to investigate would increase transparency in our science system and rebuild public trust in the science community.

Q. Lastly, which New Zealand scientists do you feel are pioneering science communication - and what hope do you have for the future?

A. Two scientists whose communication skills I most admire are Siouxsie Wiles and Michelle Dickinson.

Both have mastered all forms of media, including traditional (TV, radio and print) and social media, including Twitter and blogging.

They are making science accessible to a wide variety of people, particularly children.

On top of their work in science communication, they both teach at the University of Auckland and lead active research groups.

Traditionally, it is research and teaching that have been important for career advancement in universities - my hope for the future is that communication becomes another plank on which academics can build their career.

JOYCE: SCIENTISTS NOT BEING 'SILENCED'

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce disagreed scientists were being muzzled.

Generally, Mr Joyce said he was not aware of any barriers stopping scientists from communicating publicly.

"Obviously, universities have that very explicit role as critic and conscience of society and that's being maintained," he said.

"And in terms of CRIs [Crown Research Institutes], and universities, the only potential issue is when they are doing contract research or research on behalf of a particular organisation.

"And that's subject normally to particularly policies that those institutions have and which are all set up individually - it's not something that the Government gets involved in.

"But in general terms, you'd have to say New Zealand has a very robust scientific communication environment; there are lots of issues that scientists speak on, as they should, and they get the opportunity to do so."

Professor Richard Bedford, president of the Royal Society of New Zealand, acknowledged there were occasions when scientists felt constrained and those situations had to be dealt with appropriately, with the public interest at the forefront.

"It is especially important to provide evidence based information so public and governments alike can make good decisions."

The society had recently consulted with the research community on a set of draft guidelines to assist engagement between researchers and the public. "Most of the discussions were around how to encourage engagement, and only a few comments were raised about constraints," he said.

"Overall, we have received much useful feedback, which is currently being incorporated into a new draft of the guidelines that will be published in the near future."

Sir Peter said he believed there was no "constitutional restraint" on scientists speaking publicly.

"I mean, CRI scientists are employees, which as in other parts of the world, does create some constraint.

"But I've worked with the CRI boards to say, given that the large number of CRI scientists are doing some good work, they must be opened up to comment on those matters."

Sir Peter said CRIs were "getting far better" at communicating their science.

"So no, I don't think there's any constitutional constraint. On the opposite, I think what's been happening is the Government, through what we are seeing with the Royal Society and through [science outreach initiative] A Nation of Curious Minds, is trying to encourage scientists to talk to society."

Mr Joyce also disagreed that a new independent parliamentary body representing science was warranted, saying this was what the political process was for.

"There is never going to be a system where politics is subsumed, in these more politically controversial areas, to just a group of scientists having a strong view.

"Because we have a political process and that's democracy," Mr Joyce said.

"So, in my view, I don't think there's a need to keep adding additional arbiters simply because [Professor Hendy] is not getting the answers he wants.

"Most people would say that just because a group of scientists want something to happen, doesn't necessarily mean it should happen: it's still subject to the political process."

Sir Peter noted New Zealand already had a science advisory system that was a mix of internal and external bodies.

Parliament was already served by researchers from the Parliamentary Library.

Outside of Government, there were groups including the New Zealand Association of Scientists and the Royal Society, which he argued were "fiercely independent".

His own role, Sir Peter said, was also independent - he had been openly critical of the Government in some cases in the past and he was free to speak to opposition MPs - but was largely focused around providing evidence to policy, "rather than policy for science".
"Science, policy and society is a three-way thing: science does not make policy, and in fact the worst thing we can do as scientists is exhibit hubris and think we know what policy-making is all about."

- NZ Herald

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