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Rebecca Priestley: Silencing Science by Shaun Hendy

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)

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