NZ’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has accused the NZ Association of Scientists (NZAS) of casting doubt on the integrity of NZ’s scientists, and says it will no longer pay membership fees for its staff.
This morning, news broke on Radio NZ National of an internal email within the Crown Research Institute (CRI) NIWA sent in early August titled ‘Protecting the integrity of science and scientists’, in which the author(s) states that NIWA is no longer prepared to pay for its staff to be members of an organisation that “actively lobbies against science and the integrity of scientists”. These are strong allegations that seem to have come out of the blue and are in direct contradiction to my experience of being an NZAS member.
This is how the email starts:
You may be aware of allegations made by the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS), a small group comprised of just 257 members, claiming firstly that scientists in many organisations are being prevented from talking about the science they undertake, and secondly that science being done on a commercial basis is somehow not credible, or is biased.
Are scientists being gagged?
The first part, that scientists are being prevented from talking about their science, refers to a survey carried out by the NZAS last year and which resulted in media stories about the ‘gagging’ of scientists. The survey came about because of a suggestion in the Science in Society report, A Nation of Curious Minds that science in New Zealand is in need of a ‘code for public engagement’. Given this was already well covered in the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Code of Ethical Conduct, some of us where worried this might be used to try to prevent scientists from speaking about their work in public. One of the questions the survey asked was:
Have you ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy, or by fear of losing research funding?
Of the 384 responses the NZAS survey received, 151 people answered yes to that question. So not so much an allegation as reporting what survey respondents told them. The NIWA email goes on to criticise the NZAS survey as “lacking scientific credibility” and implies that the NZAS, with it’s small membership, doesn’t represent the scientific community in New Zealand.
These criticisms are very similar to those made by the Hon Steven Joyce, when the survey results were released. I was baffled by his response at the time. Surely any scientists coming forward and saying they felt gagged was cause for further investigation. Mr Joyce could have called for this but didn’t. It’s worth noting that only 17% of the survey respondents were NZAS members.
Should commercial interests drive our science?
The second part of the statement, that commercial science is not credible or is biased, isn’t anything I recognise as having come out of the NZAS. In fact, the NZAS recently stood up for scientists (pdf) at another CRI Landcare Research who were being made redundant. The position the NZAS has taken on science funding is that we need to be wary of allowing all of the science we do to be dictated by and paid for by commercial interests.
That isn’t an attack on the integrity of commercial research, it’s a desire for us not to put all our eggs in the basket that is the short term interests of today’s companies, to the detriment of losing the blue skies discovery research that will lead to the technological advances and companies of the future. The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has also said there is too much “end-user engagement” in our funding system.
What’s behind this?
The timing of this email is odd. What has prompted this outburst now so many months after the survey? And what do NIWA scientists feel about it? The CRIs are under a funding review. Is this someone trying to curry favour with Minister Joyce to save their CRI by echoing his sentiments about the survey?
Reading the NIWA email reminded me of a recent article on Carrick Graham in North and South magazine. He’s the shadowy figure paid to attack scientists who stand against his clients in the sugar, tobacco and alcohol industry. It made me wonder, while NIWA starts a fight with the NZAS, who exist to promote science in New Zealand and improve the working conditions for scientists, who else stands to benefit?
If nothing else, NIWA’s email has just reopened a massive can of worms, and as Prof Shaun Hendy pointed out on Twitter, likely breached section 5.1 2.c of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Code of Ethical Conduct:
5.1 Respect for colleagues. 2. c: avoid falsely, vexatiously or maliciously attempting to impugn the reputations of colleagues or otherwise compromising or denigrating them in order to achieve commercial, professional or personal advantages;
which is ironic, as it was discussion of a code of conduct that started all this in the first place. Just shows whoever wrote that email isn’t familiar with the code we already have!