Rebecca Priestley: Silencing Science by Shaun Hendy

by Rebecca Priestley / 16 May, 2016
Too often our scientists are banned from or punished for speaking out on issues.
Shaun Hendy sees barriers to scientists speaking out on controversial issues. Photo/Getty Images/Supplied
Shaun Hendy sees barriers to scientists speaking out on controversial issues. Photo/Getty Images/Supplied


When it comes to such issues as climate change, water quality, nutrition and food safety, “we are making ­decisions that are bad for us”, says Shaun Hendy in his new book, Silencing Science. And if this situation is to change, the media, the public and policymakers need better access to scientific expertise. Too often our scientists are being discouraged, prohibited or penalised for speaking out on issues on which the media or the public are seeking information.

Hendy – professor of physics at the University of Auckland and director of Te Punaha Matatini, one of 10 government-funded Centres of Research Excellence – engages regularly with the media and the public on a range of scientific issues, but sees “a whole lot of barriers that stop other scientists doing what I do”.

Most of New Zealand’s scientists work in the public sector, for universities and crown research institutes (CRIs). The Education Act gives university scientists “academic freedom … to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”. But academics who take advocacy roles can face flak. Massey University ecologist Mike Joy, for example, has faced personal and professional criticism from ­political lobbyists, bloggers and even the Prime Minister, for what Joy calls New Zealand’s environmental crisis. And public health researchers have been targeted by PR companies representing producers of sugary foods. Hendy says universities have been slow to support staff who speak out.

Scientists who work in our CRIs “often have to navigate quite complex media policies”, making it difficult for the media and the public to access their expertise. These CRIs rely on research contracts with government and commercial clients and can be unwilling to speak out on issues in which their clients have interests.

Hendy is not on a crusade to make life easier for scientists, however. It’s about responsibility to the public. “Most scientists in New Zealand have had an enormous investment from the taxpayer, and the taxpayer is now not hearing from them.” At the same time as many scientists are becoming less accessible, we’re facing environmental and societal problems that science can help solve.

I regularly interview scientists for this column and often find it diffi­cult to get information from CRIs: it’s rarely as simple as picking up a phone and talking to a scientist. One CRI requires me to submit my interview questions, by email, to the ­communications manager.

The CRIs were formed in 1992, after the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) was disestablished. At a recent conference, I talked about the ways that DSIR scientists communicated with the public. Like today’s scientists, they gave public talks but they also received and answered phone calls and letters from the public. And they spoke to the media. From time to time, they were required to not contradict specific areas of government policy, but there was an “open phone policy” and individual scientists were trusted and encouraged to speak to the media.

In 1985, then DSIR director-general Jim Ellis invited his staff to “speak up in your area of expertise whenever this seems to be a wise response to an opportunity or issue”. It would be good if today’s public scientists were encouraged and supported to do the same.

SILENCING SCIENCE, by Shaun Hendy (BWB Texts, $14.99)

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

After the election campaign highs, Winston Peters brings the buzz-kill
80500 2017-09-25 06:31:24Z Politics

After the election campaign highs, Winston Peters …

by Bevan Rapson

Could the kingmaker climb down from his high horse, please?

Read more
Young Kiwi filmmakers seek a chance for silent fame
79698 2017-09-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Young Kiwi filmmakers seek a chance for silent fam…

by Luke Jackson

The countdown is on for young Kiwi filmmakers to score their three minutes of fame.

Read more
How the media oversold standing desks as a fix for inactivity at work
80380 2017-09-25 00:00:00Z Health

How the media oversold standing desks as a fix for…

by The Conversation

When the world's first guidelines about sitting and moving at work were published, they created a media storm. But here's what was missed in the hype.

Read more
This post-election business is anything but usual
80491 2017-09-24 09:10:53Z Politics

This post-election business is anything but usual

by Jane Clifton

For the first time in our 21 year MMP history, the prospect of the party with the biggest vote not forming the Government doesn't seem unconscionable.

Read more
Election 2017: How the battleground seats fell
80489 2017-09-24 08:21:45Z Politics

Election 2017: How the battleground seats fell

by RNZ

As predicted there were some tough battles in key electorate seats. Here's how the the votes fell yesterday.

Read more
Labour's Greg O'Connor on Ōhāriu: 'Every little thing got you over the line'
80486 2017-09-24 07:55:24Z Politics

Labour's Greg O'Connor on Ōhāriu: 'Every little th…

by Jacob McSweeny

Barring a huge turnaround in the special votes, Labour's Greg O'Connor is the new Ōhāriu MP - with a 679-vote majority at this point.

Read more
Greens candidate Chloe Swarbrick looks set to be Parliament's youngest MP
80482 2017-09-24 06:39:07Z Politics

Greens candidate Chloe Swarbrick looks set to be P…

by RNZ

At age 23, Chloe Swarbrick would be the youngest MP in 42 years.

Read more
Who will Winston Peters choose?
80475 2017-09-24 00:00:00Z Politics

Who will Winston Peters choose?

by RNZ

The outcome of yesterday's election is still not certain, with the balance of power now resting in the hands of New Zealand First and Winston Peters.

Read more