Physics professor calls for govt to learn lessons from scientists being silenced during Fonterra's botulism scare

Physics professor calls for govt to learn lessons from scientists being silenced during Fonterra's botulism scare

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.”

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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10 Comments

There leading experts are often _wrong_. Leading scientists talk about _science_. So they would be talking about the _process_ that was being used. Once you get in and actually rub elbows with the cams & pistons of the labs is when you start to find out the High Priest Scientists are just human, and more often than very ego orientated and control obsessed.
Of course there's a gag order (non-disclosure) - my bank doesn't discuss it's clients accounts. My lawyer won't comment on anything he's worked on. My doctor will only reveal mandatory reportings. Police won't comment on current investigations or cases before the court. And the court staff are very limited in what they reveal. A secretary won't often disclose what she knows of the a company. And the HR staff are similarly tight lipped.
they'll discuss generics - like whether a "toxin" would be possible to find. But you won't get them discussing someone else particulars - like whether or not we actually had to outside New Zealand to get the Botulism test done, as that particular pathogen is almost unheard of in New Zealand (hence Fonterra's initial rightful dismissal of the danger but Fonterra likes to pay too much to see it's product is perfect so they got the test down overseas anyway...but it's a notifiable test, one you're not legally allowed to commission (if at least for the reason it involves sending potentially lethal biohazardous material across New Zealand borders and sending lethal biohazardous material INTO the US...strangely something in these terrorist laden times that will create a _lot_ of interest and paperwork at the US end.)

So our experts are wrong and controlling.........Cowboy , if not the scientific method then what?

Only Steven Joyce knows the truth.(or makes the truth)

Better education of the population.

More personal liability for employees, not hiding behind their employers liability. No get out of swaps free for people who had duty of care but our tort law let them off the hook they threw themselves on.

What you're talking about, you see. What you're talking about, ISN'T the scientific method. It's superstition and religion build up AROUND the scientific method. A bit like the Titanic which was the most technologically advanced ship of it's day (not really but close) but that was it's claim to fame.
If the scientific method WAS followed Fonterra would already have to have in place a list and process for threshold and pathogen control. There would be no issue for getting samples tests without panicing bureaucrats, notices of information to the media would simple have read "Suspicion of pathogen found in sample. Products on hold." And the scientifically savvy would just go "ok. lets wait for the results".
None of this yanking products off the shelf. No dumping of supplies. No reason for politicians to start looking for photo-ops. Bugger all for the media to say.

And probably more importantly to my initial point: Those "scientist experts" that poo-poo'd their collegue about "making comments out of her field re:toxins" would have ... if experts in their own fields... would have done some scientific method (or any research) to find out if she was wrong or correct. and _would_not_ have gone for a personal attack. ... Or is personal attacks the "new science"??

My tirades again higher education and science aren't about the such things being bad. The opposite in fact, it's that those with higher information have to tools to act better and have better information...and don't. Like our government and politicians - they are in a more powerful position so should be _more_ accountable, more sensible, ad held to it. (and since they have the advantage of education and power..._they_ should be the ones leading that responsibility call...not some cowboy)

[ pointless rant deleted. Ed ]

The scientists that attacked Dr Siouxsie Wiles actually showed themselves up!!

I bet you she knows a thing or two about Clostridium botulinum........

Interesting are the comments of the Editor of the Lancet..
“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue,”

http://disinfo.com/2015/05/lancet-editor-the-case-against-science-is-str...

http://robinwestenra.blogspot.nl/2015/06/new-zealand-scientists-being-ga...

"Monday, 22 June 2015
New Zealand scientists being gagged by the Key government"

Some jumping on the coattails here by Interest.co.nz

For an example where our chief scientist and PM of Parnell shot down our scientists internationally go to the following sites.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/hardtalk/9480610.stm
http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/john-keys-unhappy-week-at-the-bbc/

Its similar to what happens to whistle-blowers at corrupt companies.

Classic, this comment section has attracted all our climate denying friends.

Wait till JK gives us the TPP.

Science will well and truly be locked away in a silent corner.

You're right Mike.

Chemical Companies To Write Own Chemical Safety Standards

http://naturalsociety.com/chemical-companies-to-write-own-chemical-safet...

and

Under Shadow of Trade Deal, US Pesticide Lobby Pressured EU to Dump Toxic Pesticide Rules

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/05/22/under-shadow-trade-deal-us-p...