Are NZ's scientists scared to speak up?18/07/2016
The fight for the mighty research dollar is creating some significant barriers to scientists commenting on controversial issues. ELIZABETH McLEOD discovers why some of our leading minds are calling for a Commission for Science.
These days, a large part of scientific endeavour in New Zealand is carried out within the corporatised model of Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).
Embedded in the model is an explicit expectation – stated in the legislation – that CRIs carry out their work “for the benefit of New Zealand”.
There are many scientific projects where industry or government agendas comfortably co-exist with the beneficial interests of New Zealand. But what happens when these interests are seen to be at odds?
In his new book Silencing Science, Shaun Hendy lays down the gauntlet: “The Prime Minister has a chief science advisor, and it is time the public had one too.”
It’s a provocative comment – but Hendy, one of our leading scientists, is arguably well positioned to make it. A professor in physics at the University of Auckland, he is also director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence; a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and a recipient of several awards including the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.
Scientists are being silenced in many ways, both overt and subtle, argues Hendy. This ‘silencing’ can range from confidentiality clauses in contracts with research funders, to self-censorship by scientists worried about jeopardising their funding – and even scientists criticising each other for speaking out on topics outside of their specialist expertise, or too early in their careers. Sometimes, they’re just afraid of getting it wrong, or being misquoted by journalists.
Hendy’s book explores how, during the Christchurch earthquakes and the Fonterra botulism saga, experts being unavailable or unwilling to comment created a vacuum that was often filled by speculation and some less-than-reliable commentators.
Science commentator and Sciblogs founder Peter Griffin is in the rare position of having been able to ask hundreds of scientists about gagging – and receiving an honest answer. As manager of the Science Media Centre, Griffin runs media training for scientists around the country. He says they frequently tell him they’ve experienced “pressure from above” not to comment publicly on sensitive issues.
“It’s definitely more pronounced among CRIs,” says Griffin.
“And while some CRIs actually have enshrined in their charter that part of their role is to communicate their science to the public, increasingly the overriding priority is commercial viability and growing the private side of their business. I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate that commercial imperative from the public interest science they do.”
Many scientists tell Griffin they self-censor.
“My worry is that a lot of researchers are increasingly just going, ‘it’s not worth the hassle, I’ve got a good thing going here, I’ve got research underway, I’ve got funding and I don’t want to jeopardise that in a fiscally constrained environment, so it’s better for me to just say very little or say nothing’.
“On some issues in particular, it’s harder than ever for us to get five or six people to weigh in with commentary. And that, I think, is a tragedy for the diversity of discussion on a lot of these issues.”
During the Fonterra crisis, he recalls, “for a few crucial days we thought the milk powder may be contaminated with a deadly pathogen, and we really needed some insight from independent scientists”.
“The problem was, everyone who had expertise in that area was either aligned with AgResearch, MPI or Fonterra – so everyone had confidentiality contracts and was told not to speak to the media.”
Sometimes this official circumspection stems from a desire not to alarm the public until all the facts are known.
Kelvin Berryman, principal scientist at GNS Science, says in the aftermath of the Christchurch quakes, some “alarming, quite outlandish” claims were made based on opinion rather than data about the risk of further aftershocks.
“These were coming from sectors where there is that freedom to say, ‘well, I think this is going to happen’.”
GNS, by contrast, didn’t express opinions unless they were based on the data, he says. “We recognise, as government scientists if you like, that there are some wider ramifications of the information that gets delivered – including to the public’s confidence, safety, psychological concerns, and business, insurance etc.”
Other times, it appears to be political. Climate scientist James Renwick worked for 20 years at the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).
Now a professor of physical geography at Victoria University, Renwick says NIWA scientists were “discouraged from saying anything that would go against public policy, or possibly reflect badly on the Minister”.
Likewise Michael Baker, currently professor of public health at the University of Otago, who previously worked at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), where the main contractor was the Ministry of Health.
“It was very apparent that you couldn’t really speak out on issues. Some issues, some areas of research, even some viewpoints got actively suppressed,” says Baker.
Scientists were limited to presenting the data: “You weren’t allowed to interpret what should happen about them and the applications. It was very difficult to highlight the issues that really mattered.”
Sometimes the research itself is silenced. Baker recalls that during his time at ESR a report on a large research project demonstrating the massive financial cost of hospital-acquired infections was pulled from publication at the last minute by a nervous Ministry of Health who “felt they weren’t ready to manage the fall-out”. The colleague who’d written the report returned to the US, taking her expertise with her.
“I think we need as a society to look really critically at the CRI-government relationship, because I think it does mean we’re not getting the best value out of our science.
“Often the scientists doing the work may be the best-qualified people in New Zealand to understand a problem, and sometimes to identify ways forward, and they’re not allowed to speak out on that. And I experienced quite a few examples of that when I was working at ESR.”
At the heart of the issue is the fact that CRIs are not universities, and their scientist employees are not academics.
It’s a distinction that Science New Zealand chief executive Anthony Scott is keen to make clear.
Academics have a statutory role to be ‘critics and conscience of society’, which bestows a specific freedom to comment called ‘academic freedom’ (although it’s important to note, this can be superseded by confidentiality clauses when academics accept contracts from government or commercial clients).
The concept of ‘academic freedom’ doesn’t apply to scientists working in CRIs, says Scott.
In fact, he challenged the very premise of this article and Hendy’s book, saying a discussion of academic freedom “is simply not relevant” to the role of scientists in CRIs. Even the word ‘gagged’ implies the removal of a right that CRI researchers simply don’t have, he says.
“CRIs are not academics at universities. CRI researchers operate within a set of policies which reflect the different role of CRIs and universities, and different working environments. For example, CRIs are team-based, and also the corporate body takes responsibility for the actions – including statements – of its staff when associated with that staff member.
“The Science Media Centre may choose to characterise this as ‘pressure from above’ or ‘being discouraged from saying anything that might go against public policy’ – but all public sector agencies and most private sector bodies of any size will have media and public engagement policies that also allow for individuals to take part in processes and discussions outside the CRI.”
Scott says CRI science and staff are “absolutely dedicated to the integrity of the science”, and both are tested through all the standard measures of science including peer review, as well as in “open forums of civil society such as judicial proceedings”.
CRIs have internal processes that enable staff to raise matters safely and are also subject to the Protected Disclosures Act 2000 (or ‘whistleblower law’), he says.
And because it’s vital to have people with scientific authority who communicate well (“as the Fonterra example showed, a wrong word can cause unwarranted concern and damage”), it’s “highly appropriate” for CRIs to choose how to handle their communications, Scott argues.
This doesn’t wash with Hendy.
He acknowledges that legally CRI scientists don’t have academic freedom “at the present time”.
“What I explore in Silencing Science is whether this is the right thing for New Zealand, and conclude that no, it isn’t.
“There are situations where a lack of scientists speaking out – CRI and academic – has clearly harmed the country, and I’ve come across numerous examples where CRIs have simply declined to allow their experts to talk to the media, despite Scott’s assurances.
“We need to change this; CRIs need to enshrine their responsibilities to inform the public in their statements of core purpose.”
Hendy says it’s unhelpful to divorce the conversation about academic freedom from the responsibilities of CRI scientists.
“Scientists, whether from academia or a CRI, are part of the same community and compete for the same pots of funding. If some scientists are being hindered from participating in public debate, the public can get a distorted view of the science.
“Furthermore, we’re increasingly being encouraged to work collaboratively across institutions, so policies that affect CRI scientists’ ability to talk can also impact on their collaborators in academia.”
Surveys on silencing
In a 2014 online survey by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS), 40 per cent of respondents said they’d been prevented from making public comment on a controversial issue by their management’s policy or fear of losing funding. More than half of respondents were from CRIs and 33 per cent were from universities. Of those who hadn’t felt gagged, many said they’d witnessed it happening to others.
If the sample is in any way representative, it’s clear that the “silencing” isn’t confined to CRI scientists. While the academics interviewed by Education Review all spoke warmly of the comparative freedom they experience in their universities, it’s a freedom apparently not experienced by all academics.
In a 2014 survey of 3,000 academics by AUT’s Work Research Institute, more than one-third reported that their level of academic freedom was worse than when they began working in the sector, as was their opportunity to act as “critic and conscience” of society.
Some argue that the externally sponsored research funding model universities have had to embrace makes scientists fearful about speaking out – despite their “critic and conscience” role.
Professor Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, says issues around publication and freedom of expression of views for contracted research “get sorted out” when contracts are negotiated. Sometimes commercial funders want to have the results ahead of publication, or to keep the intellectual property to themselves. “And of course they’re completely entitled to do that. But I don’t think we have any real experience of significant numbers of researchers complaining that their results were suppressed because they’re unpopular.”
It’s important not to cast CRIs as the villains of the piece: none of the scientists interviewed by Education Review had personally felt constrained in speaking out while employed in CRIs, though all had witnessed others experiencing it.
More transparency around evidence
Hendy claims certain industries will “cherry-pick the experts who are doing the measurements that tend to favour them”. An example, he says, is the recent fisheries study that suggested New Zealand’s true catch was nearly triple what’s reported.
An international collaboration including University of Auckland research fellow Dr Glenn Simmons and the University of British Columbia, the study “sought to fill the gaps left by official data”.
That official data is collected by NIWA scientists, who Hendy believes were doing more conservative measurements at the lower bounds of the over-catch. The University of Auckland scientists, by contrast, looked at the maximum effect from fish being caught but not recorded.
“The real answer probably lies somewhere in between. Both approaches in some ways are valid – but if we want to get to the truth, we really need to be funding both types of work.”
It’s important to note that the fisheries stock surveys NIWA carries out are funded through industry levies. Anthony Scott is clear, however, that NIWA’s scientists “are contracted by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), not by the industry”.
But the question must be asked: if industries like the fisheries are effectively able to “buy science” from research institutes like NIWA, can we trust the science? The obvious answer is we can if we have a transparent system that enables scrutiny – and checks and balances in place when that scrutiny turns up something less than scrupulous.
“I think we need to have a careful look at how government uses evidence,” says Hendy.
“In this case I guess MPI is an organisation that know its goals are very much aligned with economic growth, and so its goals are aligned with industry… and then we find that sure enough, the evidence it’s using is the evidence that tends to favour industry. I think it’s important for MPI not only to be funding the stuff it’s comfortable with, but also perhaps funding the stuff it’s uncomfortable with.”
Griffin says when the University of Auckland fisheries report came out, it was extremely difficult to find anyone to comment.
“We went to people who’d worked at NIWA who were now outside the industry, who still had knowledge of it, and for various reasons they didn’t want to comment on it. We got an independent person from VUW and comment from NIWA itself. But there are literally only about 10 people in the country who have intimate knowledge of it and are in a position to be able to comment, and half of them are tied up in research itself.
“I definitely think there needs to be more transparency around that – particularly around fisheries, which is probably the hardest one for us to get independent commentary on.”
This seems to be the nub of the issue: you may manage to get official comment from the CRI itself, but it’s getting harder to find scientists outside of that official machinery who are able to talk authoritatively – and openly.
Berryman says it’s important for CRIs to have an open door policy with media and build a trusted relationship during “peacetime” – a message Griffin also preaches around the country.
Griffin says the Government “to its credit” has made efforts at promoting science communication with its Curious Minds and Science in Society strategy.
“So on the one hand, there’s a lot of stuff going on. But it can’t just be about science or issues that the Government is comfortable with. It has to be all science-related issues, even if they’re uncomfortable – if they’re threatening to us economically or culturally or whatever. It can’t just be something that suits a government agenda.
“A lot of these issues that university researchers and CRIs are dealing with go right to the heart of what we’re about – whether it’s our environmental sustainability or the state of our environment. It’s not enough to say we want positive communication or neutral communication – some of these issues need to be really drilled into and could be confronting to the Government – particularly around climate change.”
Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce says scientists participate in public policy debates all the time, such as “sugar, alcohol, water policy, trade policy [and] treaty policy”.
“Ultimately scientists have a strong input into public policy but decisions are made by the government of the day on behalf of the public – that’s the nature of democracy.”
Checks and balances
The thing with democracy is, there must be sufficient checks and balances. So what are they?
Universities are legally bound to ensure staff can exercise their right to speak about their research – but this right can be constrained by the terms of their research contracts. Staff who feel they’re being unreasonably constrained should take it up with senior people in their universities or with the funding agencies, says McCutcheon.
The Protected Disclosures Act or ‘whistleblower law’ enables anyone to report ‘serious wrongdoing’ in their workplace, but it seems unlikely this could extend to being prevented from speaking out on the science.
The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) is a small society with limited resources to investigate, adjudicate or advise, Hendy says. A recent misconduct allegation took six months of negotiations to resolve.
The Royal Society of New Zealand “promotes and advances” science, but can’t intervene in a case of scientific misconduct by a research organisation unless one or both the parties are Society members.
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor is tasked with encouraging greater use of evidence in public policy (amongst other things), but isn’t expected to advocate for any particular piece of scientific evidence.
Furthermore, several of the scientists Education Review interviewed believe that neither the Royal Society nor the role of the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor are sufficiently independent of the Government to challenge policies that aren’t supported by the science.
The Society’s own research community survey found that, while most view it as “largely independent”, there is “an almost universal desire for the Society to be more independent”.
The Society’s president, Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, says it’s a perception rather than reality – and persists perhaps because the Society administers large contracts on the Government’s behalf, including the Marsden Fund. But Centres of Research Excellence (including Hendy’s Te Pūnaha Matatini) also have contracts binding them to the Government, argues Bedford, and universities receive government funding, “and yet they’re not seen as being under the Government’s control”. In fact, he argues, the Government entrusts such contracts to the Society because of its independence.
However, that mutual-trust relationship with the Government could be a double-edged sword. Past-president of NZAS Dr Nicola Gaston says in the past, staff from the Royal Society have admitted openly that they weren’t going to say anything that would be embarrassing to the Government because “they weren’t able to do that”.
The role of the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor is to provide “evidence for policy rather than policy for science”, according to the man currently in the job, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. While he’s a prolific and considered blogger on scientific issues, Gluckman stresses that any advocacy he undertakes is within the confines of the policy process.
He says the interaction between science, society and evidence “is much more complex and nuanced” than Hendy’s book suggests, and scientists need to understand the policy process much better, “rather than taking the arrogant view that evidence alone makes policy”.
What are the solutions?
So… the checks and balances in the system seem patchy at best. Are there any solutions?
Griffin reckons making all publicly funded research visible would be a start.
“They [CRIs and government agencies] should be publishing on their websites and releasing their methodology around this stuff – releasing the reports, giving access to the raw data, and making an effort to actually turn that into content that’s digestible for the public.”
Griffin sees the Land Air Water Aotearoa (LAWA) website – a collaboration between regional authorities, Ministry for the Environment, Cawthron Institute and Massey University, and supported by the Tindall Foundation, to inform the public about fresh water – as a test case for what needs to happen in other areas like fisheries, natural hazards and conservation. “So the public actually understands what’s going on in a lot of the research they are funding.”
But GNS’s Berryman thinks there’s already an open data policy – except where information is commercially sensitive. And he sees risk in having so much raw data with no expert interpretation.
Social media could be used more as a tool. As Hendy and Griffin point out, scientists have far more control over the message: you can’t be misquoted; you can link to relevant evidence and articles and engage in an ongoing public discussion with others.
Hendy’s ‘Big Idea’, however, is a new independent Parliamentary Commission for Science, which would “forge a new relationship between scientists, policy-makers and the public”.
He envisages it having powers to “scrutinise the use of evidence by organisations like MPI and ensure that they’re funding a variety of science, so they’re not just using the methodologies they’re most comfortable with, but they’re listening to other experts”.
“We do have these ministerial science advisors but I don’t think they’re having enough influence on the way Ministries are using science.”
A Commission could also challenge the Government when it ignored scientific advice, investigate claims of scientific misconduct and protect whistleblowers, says Hendy. It wouldn’t, however, extend to funding or policy.
Renwick and Gaston back Hendy’s call for a Science Commission; Baker does too, “potentially”. Not so McCutcheon: “I think we’d end up with yet another bureaucracy.”
Minister Joyce has dismissed the proposal, saying, “There are very few, if any, examples of such a post internationally. This Government has introduced the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor to bring science and evidence into the heart of policy-making.”
Gluckman hasn’t commented on the Commission idea. However, he quotes Professor Ian Boyd, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: “Effective challenge is not achieved in public.”
Hendy begs to differ.
“Science that’s not heard is not science at all. Science needs openness and debate to operate properly – and the public increasingly demands transparency of scientists.”
By Elizabeth McLeod
This article originally appeared in Education Review magazine