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.

Latest

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is good too
97751 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is go…

by Metro

Head to one of these Metro Top 50 Cheap Eats and 50 under $50 restaurants for BYO dining that won't break the bank.

Read more
Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La Fuente
99033 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La …

by Jean Teng

Mezcal was once regarded as a tipple for the lower-class – now it's the hero at new bar La Fuente.

Read more
Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair
98673 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Forget the love trysts, our relationship with Chin…

by Bevan Rapson

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in NZ.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man walking
98830 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man …

by Bill Ralston

The National Party’s ongoing ructions suggest a long spell in the wilderness lies ahead.

Read more
The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation
98735 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z History

The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Faceb…

by Karl du Fresne

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

Read more
How politicians' words influence other people's actions
98985 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Psychology

How politicians' words influence other people's ac…

by Marc Wilson

Politicians like to pretend their words don’t influence others’ actions, but if that’s so, why utter them?

Read more
Teddy's in Ponsonby serves a lacklustre experience
98762 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Teddy's in Ponsonby serves a lacklustre experience…

by Alice Harbourne

Teddy's should either smarten up or loosen up.

Read more
Best of Wellington: Where to shop in the capital
98640 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Travel

Best of Wellington: Where to shop in the capital

by Metro

Here are the best places to find ethical fashion, streetwear, vintage fashion, second-hand books and more.

Read more