By Jenée Tibshraeny
Have you ever wondered why we didn’t hear more scientific debate during Fonterra’s botulism scare? Or why there’s more media coverage of anti-oil Greenpeace protests than there is coverage of the science behind the actual drilling activists are opposing?
An Auckland University physics professor is speaking out about scientists being gagged from commenting on issues of public interest by their corporate or government funders.
Professor Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre, has written a book entitled ‘Silencing Science’ that's due out at the beginning of next year.
“The public puts over a billion dollars into its science system every year, so we do have a lot of scientists that are funded from the public purse”, says Hendy.
“But of course many of these scientists also work for industry, so there are often situations where scientists are both getting money from the public to do their research, and taking money from industry.
“That just naturally produces conflicts.”
Hendy says not only can these funding agreements skew research, but they can see scientists locked up in confidentiality clauses that prevent them from talking about their work publically – even if there’s a high level of public interest.
He says this is how things played out during Fonterra’s 2013 botulism scare.
AgReserach scientists were barred from commenting on the matter, as the government commissioned them to do a lot of the testing around the whey powder believed to have been contaminated by botulism.
Hendy says there were a number of food-borne illness experts who talked to the media about the threat initially, but they were soon included in government inquiries, so had to keep quiet.
“Suddenly we found ourselves in a situation where we just didn’t have experts in New Zealand who could talk to the public about what was going on.”
Hendy said the situation came to a head when a senior manager at Fonterra, Gary Romano, told Campbell Live the dairy giant had found botulism “toxins” in the powder.
As it turned out, these weren’t “toxins”, and thankfully a number of journalists did their homework by talking to the scientists they could access, to confirm this before running with what couldn’t have been very inflammatory headlines.
“That could’ve done a lot more damage to New Zealand’s exports than the false alarm did”, says Hendy.
Science community can be its own worst enemy
Hendy says the Fonterra botulism scare also highlighted the way the science community can essentially gag itself.
One of the few scientists who did question Fonterra’s misuse of the word “toxins” was Auckland University microbiologist and science communicator, Dr Siouxsie Wiles.
However, after doing so, she was slated by members of the science community for speaking publically about matters of food-borne illness, when this wasn’t her specific area of expertise.
Hendy says, “There’s kind of a code in science, an unwritten law in a way, that you shouldn’t speak about matters where you aren’t the leading expert.
“But in a situation like this, where all the experts were tied up through conflicts of interest, or confidentiality, she stepped up and unfortunately was subsequently criticised.”
Hendy praises Wiles’ work, but points out the importance of scientists clarifying how qualified they are to comment on a certain issue before doing so.
Since discussing the issue of scientists being silenced within the mainstream media over the past month or so, a number of scientists have contacted Hendy to share their horror stories.
He says he’s even heard from scientists prevented from making school visits.
More funding and Parliamentary Commissioner for Science needed
Hendy says more government funding for science can help solve the problem of scientists being at the mercy of whoever is willing to fund their work.
He says the government only spends 0.5% of GDP on science and innovation – considerably less than the OECD average and other small countries.
“It means we have less independent scientists, and often our scientists find themselves in this situation where they’re not only the experts, but the regulators, and also have strong relationships with industry.”
Hendy admits these crossovers are exacerbated by the fact New Zealand is a small country.
He believes New Zealand needs a Parliamentary Commissioner for Science, in the same way we have a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
He says we could do with an office that can give independent oversight among scientists, where there’s potential to be conflicts of interest.
Government down-playing problem
Yet the Minister for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Steven Joyce, has downplayed Hendy’s concerns, confirmed by an Association of Scientists poll that last year found 40% of scientists surveyed felt they couldn’t speak out on issues within their areas of expertise because of management policy or concern over losing funding.
Joyce responded by saying he needed the survey to be conducted more scientifically than it was, to prove a problem even exists.
Hendy admits the survey was an opt-in poll, so didn’t include all scientists.
However he says Joyce is the only person with the resources to do a survey that includes all scientists in New Zealand.
He believes the Minster needs to take the issues seriously, as there are “hundreds” of scientists who feel they’ve been gagged at certain times in their careers.
“He’s [Joyce is] the person who’s overseen the transfer of science and innovation into the MBIE, so it’s quite clear that he sees science and innovation as being about growing the economy, rather than say protecting the environment or protecting the public”, Hendy says.
“Again, perhaps he has a conflict of interest on this issue.”
Hendy says the issue of scientists being silenced by corporate interests, isn’t a new one.
He says similar issues were discussed by the association in 1976.
“Back in those days we had a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. These days we have the Crown Research Institutes. These problems have followed the Crown Research Institutes.
“I’m not sure if it’s getting any worse… but it always needs scrutiny.”