UPDATED: We all know that our Crown Research Institutes carry out a lot of commercial work for clients, in fact they are encouraged to do so in the interests of returning a dividend to the Crown which funds them.
But are those commercial relationships influencing the scientific advice that scientists give?
Back in April, Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy claimed this was exactly what was happening in an explosive Science Express talk at Te Papa. Well, it was explosive because I live-tweeted the talk, including some of Dr Joy’s remarks, which attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter. A few of Dr Joy’s tweets:
This morning Radio New Zealand’s science reporter William Ray had a story about that approach to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which hosts the Science Media Centre which I manage. I’ve had nothing to do with internal discussions of the issue, but the radio report revealed that two letters have been written to the RSNZ by Wendy Pond of the Manu Waiata Trust and Bryce Johnson, chief executive of Fish & Game. The letter from the former apparently claims CRI science has been slanted towards the commercial interests of clients, with NIWA singled out for specific mention. The letter from the latter calls on the Royal Society to take a lead in exploring how conflicts of interest can best be handled in the context of giving expert advice.
UPDATE: See bottom for the letter from Bryce Johnson to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which was obtained under the Official Information Act.
At the heart of the issue, is scientific advice given over the environmental impact of the Ruataniwha Dam, a controversial irrigation project in the Hawkes Bay that is looking shaky after several major backers withdrew their support.
If NIWA or any other CRI is “giving biased evidence to support commercial contracts”, as the Radio NZ piece suggests, that’s a huge scandal. I haven’t seen the letters sent to the Royal Society, so don’t know the details of the allegations. However, NIWA has responded indignantly, with CEO Jon Morgan saying the suggestion was an “insult” to the scientists employed there. Association of Scientists President Dr Nicola Gaston was interviewed and said she had “no evidence” this sort of manipulation of science was going on. But she pointed out that CRI scientists don’t have the same level of academic freedom as university scientists.
So do we have a problem here? Fresh water quality management and monitoring is hugely controversial. Is this simply a case of various groups and parties disagreeing with advice given by CRI scientists on a nuanced and complex issue or is there something more sinister going on?
Scientists as friends of the court
Bryce Johns from Fish & Game raises an interesting question in the Radio New Zealand interview – could we develop a system in New Zealand where independent experts can be called by a court of law to give neutral evidence on matters? He describes this as a “friend-of-the-court” system. This regularly occurs in other parts of the world, but is not without its own problems.
Take this example to do with Obamacare and contraception schemes. The US Supreme Court is looking at whether corporate employers with religious objections must include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Various groups have taken it upon themselves to provide friend-of-the-court expert briefs in an attempt to influence the case. The science, not surprisingly, is interpreted differently. Indeed, the science involved in the specific questions is complex, but the Supreme Court won’t be making a ruling based on an interpretation of the science anyway.
What may work better to avoid duelling experts in the Environment Court and other courts, could be for the court to seek independent expert advice from a neutral body – say the Royal Society or the Association of Scientists. In some European countries, such as Norway, this is often what happens. The Court appoints expert witnesses to give evidence. But this also has its issues, as was discovered with the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik.
In that case appeals against the evidence generated by the court-appointed expert witnesses led to additional expert advice being sought by the court. This piece on The Conversation outlines the differences between the inquisitorial system of seeking expert advice in Norway and the adversarial system used in New Zealand and Australia, where both parties in the case will employ their own experts to give advice that helps their respective cases.
An expert witness is recognised by the court as a person who can give an opinion in a specific area of knowledge that is outside the understanding of an “average person”. Psychiatry and psychology expert witnesses must have relevant qualifications, training and experience to be recognised by the court as having such expertise.
Within Australia’s adversarial legal system, the defence and the prosecution will usually engage their own experts, even though the expert should not be an advocate for either party (defence or prosecution).
Usually, the expert will conduct an independent assessment and provide a report outlining the basis for his or her opinion. The report should state the facts or assumptions on which the opinion is based, and should not omit or fail to consider material facts which may contradict the opinion.
The expert should also make it clear when a particular question or issue falls outside his or her area of expertise. If the expert also considers there is insufficient data available, this must be stated to indicate that the opinion is no more than provisional.
In Norway, similar principles apply to being an expert witness, except that under their inquisitorial legal system, the court appoints the expert. (In an “inquisitorial” system, the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, whereas in an “adversarial” system, the court acts an impartial umpire between the prosecution and the defence.)
I don’t see the use of expert advice in legal cases changing any time soon in New Zealand.
And our research institutions will continue to be encouraged to pursue contracts with the private sector – this is not unusual in science anywhere in the world.
But when it comes to CRIs giving advice is there evidence of bias based on them protecting their commercial interests? Do you have examples of where scientific advice has been manipulated or changed to suit the needs of industry?
Fish & Game letter
Good afternoon Di,
Fish and Game New Zealand is a significant participant in various Resource Management Act related statutory procedures, for which we engage a range of ‘expert witnesses’. The recent Board of Inquiry case involving the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawke’s Bay is a case in point, where Fish & Game engaged many experts and lead their expert evidence before the BOI.
Separately, we are encouraging members of the science community to become more intellectually visible in the public arena, so that the wider public might benefit from their knowledge, become more informed, and generally better appreciate the role of science.
One complication that emerges from this is that a confusion, and even conflict, can develop between the common notions of being an ‘expert’ and being an ‘advocate’, with scientists becoming very edgy about being branded the latter, which I fully understand.
So I am wondering if the Royal Society would serve the science community well by taking the lead and holding a workshop/seminar to discuss how this developing conundrum might best be handled, as I suspect it is escalating across all areas of scientific endeavour and concerning a growing number of ‘experts’.
Such an event could also traverse the situation where scientists become employed by organisations with a particular purpose, and how they might be able to retain their ‘expert’ status given the partiality of their employer. Another is the impartiality of scientists employed by CRIs – ‘Crown Research Institutes’ but increasingly being viewed as ‘Client Research Institutes’.
If you would like to discuss this further please do not hesitate to contact me.