Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Scientists gagged by funding fears, says professor

Professor Shaun Hendy this week launches his book Silencing Science, in which he lays out concerns in the scientific community. Photo / Greg Bowker
Professor Shaun Hendy this week launches his book Silencing Science, in which he lays out concerns in the scientific community. Photo / Greg Bowker

A prominent professor says New Zealand needs a commission for science as many scientists are being gagged.

Professor Shaun Hendy, a recipient of the Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize, this week launches his book Silencing Science, in which he lays out concerns in the scientific community.

Journalists were finding it harder to get comment from scientists, he said, and scientists in many cases were constrained by strict media policy or fear of jeopardising funding.

"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," he told the Herald.

His book follows a 2014 report by the New Zealand Association of Scientists, which he formerly presided over, that found 40 per cent of the scientists it surveyed said they had been prevented from making public comment on a controversial issue due to policy or fear of losing funding.

Professor Hendy claimed Crown research institutes were increasingly under pressure to find private funding, so had tight, corporate-like policies filtering what scientists could 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 to speak."

He proposed a Commission for Science, responsible to Parliament rather than the Government, which could investigate complaints from whistle-blowers and increase transparency.

But Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce rejected the notion scientists were being muzzled, saying the only potential issue was where contracted research was involved.

"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."

In discussions with the research community about new potential guidelines around public engagement, the Royal Society of New Zealand found only a few comments around constraints, president Professor Richard Bedford said.

Mr Joyce said a commission was not needed, arguing the interests of science and scientists were already served by the democratic process.

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, said New Zealand had a strong science advisory system, with groups such as the Parliamentary Library and the Royal Society, which he described as "fiercely independent" of Government.

His own role was independent, he said, but was largely around providing evidence for 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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