By Siouxsie Wiles 28/08/2015 14

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!

14 Responses to “NIWA in astonishing attack on scientist association”

  • One problem is that mud sticks, and slightly-interested people will assume that NIWA has genuine grounds for slagging off at the NZAS.

    I’m not sure that NIWA could even claim to have a strong media presence ” second to none in the science sector “. My perception is that Callaghan Innovation would have a greater presence. Perhaps NIWA considers other institutions don’t do science?. It’s a dismal day when CRIs start slagging off other scientists, as we don’t all belong to the Climate Science Coalition.

    It’s about time that NZ science funders accept the high probability of global warming and transfer most funds from researchers measuring and modelling climate temperatures to different researchers/institutions working on innovative long-term mitigation solutions for NZ.

  • NIWA doesn’t have grounds for slagging off the NZAS which in good faith conducted a survey that attracted responses from a lot of non-members. It raised some good points for discussion. Their conference held at the Royal Society was constructive and very open – everyone had their say.

    The takeaway from the NZAS survey is that there are times when, despite the extensive work CRIs do with the media, scientists aren’t able to speak out. It could be because of commercial contracts or political sensitivities. We have to live with that to some extent. But at least if CRI scientists know the ground rules and they are applied evenly across the CRIs, the scientists themselves, the rest of the sector and the media will at least understand it.

    I agree that its a dismal day when scientists turn on one another – New Zealand is too small for that kind of carry on.

  • The Crown’s corporation wants all scientists to chose the occupation of science or politicians.
    It always amazes me the amount of funding cognitive bias most scientists have.
    Why go on denying that funding( and papers that go with it) is not seen as important.
    @Bruce I have heard constant slagging off of Climate Science Coalition scientists, do you think about that? is it hard for you to experience a portion of reputation damage they have to deal with from political scientists?

    • The mention of Climate Science Coalition started in the NIWA email. I dislike the treatment of opponents demonstrated in the Climategate emails, as well as the general “denier” invective used by some supporters of anthropogenic climate change to attack any doubters or opponents. Both sides of the debate behave badly.

      I avoid reading insulting posts from both sides, but do look at Judith Curry’s and Steve McIntyre’s blogs occasionally to try and obtain some balance. The Steyn v Mann legal wrangle should sell lots of popcorn.

      I don’t have the expertise to assess NIWA’s manipulation of historical meteorological data, however the CSC’s coalition attempts to use our courts to resolve such science issues were misguided and futile. If CSC scientists feel unjustifiably insulted, they need to provide robust and accurate data to support their stance. NIWA, as a government-funded entity, should ensure all raw and manipulated data, along with complete details of the manipulations, are freely available.

      Given the many uncertainties in the data, I do not like the black and white approach of both sides of the climate change debate, as we are pumping a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without knowing the consequences. We waste energy, and we should reduce our footprint.

      Trying to mitigate emissions now seems rational to me, without continuing to throw large sums of money at NIWA and other researchers who conveniently mention climate change in proposals. Current temperature models don’t seem to provide accurate predictions, and seem to be adjusted to compensate for unexpected reality.

      • @Bruce Hamilton You say you haven’t heard the insults to the CSC… you didn’t read any of it?

        Trying to mitigate Co2 emissions seems rational to you?
        You think putting a carbon tax on the people and setting up carbon trading for wall st is “mitigating emissions”?
        I appreciate you say don’t have the expertise to talk about NIWA data fraud- hows your knowledge base of the geoengineering .

        • On insults. Only what I accidentally encountered in the media.
          On mitigating emissions. No, I didn’t, and still don’t, think the the Carbon Emissions trading scheme would mitigate emissions. Mitigating emissions is reducing consumption of fossil fuels, eg using 1000+ kg vehicle to transport a 100 kg person is very wasteful. Japan is now making 600 – 700 kg cars with similar crash protection to our current 1000+ kg vehicles, unlike their small Kei cars which have less occupant protection. The new models will soon reach NZ, we have to reduce the love of SUVs and heavier vehicles to reduce emissions. Moving off-topic, so bye.

    • There are no climate scientists in the so-called Climate Science Coalition. It is a dodgy lobby group designed to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about climate change.

  • Thanks Siouxsie. I’d say any NZAS stance against commercial research IS (or should be) at least partly concerned with integrity; problems are more likely with vested interests involved cf Nth and Sth. But it’s completely proper to have that conversation, and doing so in no way undermines integrity of NZ Science … quite the opposite.
    Timing at least partly due to NZAS subs request.

    • Maybe I’m misinterpreting your comment, but there seems to be an implication that commercial researchers can have less integrity than other researchers. Having worked in 2 commercial research laboratories in NZ and 2 Government research institutions over several decades, I can assure you that all laboratories were populated with researchers of high integrity and skill.

      Out of curiosity, have you been a full-time employee researcher inside a NZ company lab?. If so, did the experience cause you to think the researchers had less integrity than other researchers?.

      • An occupation that has profit, maintaining political lies and money as a driver does not garner integrity.
        Integrity, a character trait of ‘goodness’ a human being has integrity or doesn’t .
        Evidence now indicates that senior scientists and executives within the cigarette industry knew about the cancer risks of smoking as early as the 1940s and were aware that smoking could cause lung cancer by the mid 1950s.
        Integrity demands the acknowledgment of muzzling of many scientists (and the respect of CSC scientists in this darkly political climate to have the strength speak out against consensus science).
        You really need to be given more proof of many commercial and “political” scientists lacking integrity?

        • I really don’t know what you are trying to claim here, that all paid scientists lack integrity?. Integrity is a personal property, eg being honest and fair. Perhaps you should provide specific examples of a lack of integrity of NZ scientists ( not their managers or the corporate entity, but individual NZ scientists ) – that may constitute proof of your claim, as it’s only an assertion at the moment.

          If scientists believe they are unjustifiably being muzzled, they have options, from reporting to internal compliance to resignation. People choose who employs them, and can renegotiate their position, or even resign, if they are uncomfortable with constraints subsequently imposed on them.

          Employees are also bound by the confidentially and acceptable behavior requirements in their employment contracts, which are also enshrined in most commercial contracts between their employer and clients. Integrity is also complying with previously-agreed employment conditions. If an employee believes there is serious wrongdoing in their workplace they can invoke the Protected Disclosures Act ( aka whistleblower legislation ). As far as I’m aware, working for a commercial entity doesn’t automatically confer a lack of integrity on employees.

          • My claim is that there are commercial and corporate scientists in NZ that are lacking integrity.

            One of the problems is that integrity to you means complying with commercial contracts.This is incorrect as that is not what integrity is. Non disclosure is not integrity.
            You are familiar with the Milgram Experiment in this study the harm of others was carried out willingly on the grounds that someone else( superior position) would take responsibility for their wrong actions. You are suggesting that your employer takes responsibility for lack of integrity, knowing the commercial manager is lacking integrity, politically and money focused.
            That is integrity to you a non disclosure agreement. What happens psychologically is you identify with the corporation’s commercial interests and loose integrity, thinking “non disclosure” and obedience to the commercial interest is integrity.

            You assertion is that all scientist have integrity this is not supported by any evidence.

            The scientists that feel they are silenced by political or commercial interests obviously are faced with job loss or funding cuts, I firmly disagree with you that this is a fair or reasonable solution for the tyranny and corruption of science they are experiencing.
            Do you know what happens to govt employee whistleblowers in science, it takes great courage to speak the truth and be verbally attacked by commercial corporate employees “scientists” totally lacking in integrity.
            I am astonished that you expressed a lack of concern for fellow scientists thinking that they should loose their jobs for speaking a truthful science that is against commercial and political interests.
            On a positive note many are willing to acknowledge and discuss this problem(s) in science .



          • I’m sorry this response is rather long but we are moving off-topic. Feel free to respond, but please don’t expect further responses from me.

            “My claim is that there are commercial and corporate scientists in NZ that are lacking integrity.”

            Why not provide specific NZ examples, as I requested?.

            ” One of the problems is that integrity to you means complying with commercial contracts. This is incorrect as that is not what integrity is. Non disclosure is not integrity.”

            You apparently believe it’s OK to take money from your employer, having signed a legal document covering your obligations, and then breach that agreement. As I noted above, there are resolution processes if you discover serious misconduct or feel muzzled. In my world, integrity includes honoring contracts I freely sign.

            ” You assertion is that all scientist have integrity this is not supported by any evidence. ”

            You assertion that I asserted that is obviously false, refer above. AFAIK, the scientists I’ve worked with have integrity, including resigning when confronted with tasks they felt compromised by. I didn’t include “all scientists”.

            “The scientists that feel they are silenced by political or commercial interests obviously are faced with job loss or funding cuts, I firmly disagree with you that this is a fair or reasonable solution for the tyranny and corruption of science they are experiencing.”

            Provide some NZ-based evidence of the alleged “tyranny and corruption”, it can’t be hard to find if it’s pervasive. I’ve always said that if employees don’t enjoy going to work, find another job – as your attitude affects yourself, your family and friends, and your relationship with colleagues.

            ” Do you know what happens to govt employee whistleblowers in science, it takes great courage to speak the truth and be verbally attacked by commercial corporate employees “scientists” totally lacking in integrity.”

            If I pay for research that is confidential, I expect all employees of the provider to honor any non-disclosure agreement. If employees feel their work has been misconstrued they can use internal review processes and/or the Protected Disclosures Act. If they are correct, it’s very likely changes will occur. One problem may be that the corporate version is correct and the employee doesn’t have all the facts, hence the requirement to follow a documented process.

            ” I am astonished that you expressed a lack of concern for fellow scientists thinking that they should loose their jobs for speaking a truthful science that is against commercial and political interests”

            If they break agreed contractual obligations because they believe their perception is truth, without following agreed resolution processes, I would expect most employers to treat that as serious misconduct and sack them.

            ” On a positive note many are willing to acknowledge and discuss this problem(s) in science “.

            The articles you provide don’t validate corruption, they note much of the research is “untrue”. That’s not necessarily due to lack of integrity on the part of researchers.

            Lets take a few NZ examples….

            1. New Zealand Kanuka Honey has high levels of methylglyoxal and antimicrobial activity.

            This paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2012, and then promoted by the first author (Professor Shaun Holt of Victoria University) who set up a company ( HoneyLab ) to promote kanuka products. The methylglyoxal claim was immediately disputed by other researchers who had previously examined kanuka honey and couldn’t find even a fraction of the reported concentration. The IRL researchers stood by their analysis, and Professer Holt stood by the kanuka sample provenance. The obvious culprits were the bees, who hadn’t told their keepers where they collected the pollen for the honey. The conclusions were clearly untrue, but that doesn’t reflect a lack of integrity in the researchers.

            2. Volatile nitrosamine levels in rubber teats and pacifiers available in New Zealand.

            This front-page news peer-reviewed 1985 paper found that one product recorded a nitrosamine ( very toxic ) level 3 times the maximum permitted US FDA concentration. Subsequent work showed that a new batch of solvent had trace compounds that eluted in the region of nitrosamines on the HPLC. The importer collected compensation for the serious harm to their product’s image. The conclusion was untrue, but there was no lack of integrity, but perhaps a lack of analytical rigour.

            3. NZ Petrol contained illegally-high concentrations of lead.

            This NZ university study was also front page news in the 1970s, as the lead concentration found exceeded the maximum permitted lead concentration by >20%. The researchers used atomic absorption spectrophotometry, whereas the only approved method for lead in petrol used digestion of the alkyl lead compounds to inorganic lead, followed by compleximetric titration. The oil companies quickly pointed out that organometallic compounds have an enhanced response factor in atomic absorption flames and furnaces, and organic samples have to be converted to inorganic form to match the inorganic salt calibration solutions. The university researchers stuck to their claims until the oil companies conclusively proved the AAS analyses were incorrect ( by analysing samples using both techniques ), and could also provide overseas published literature that demonstrated the enhancement effects. AFAIK, the university data was never withdrawn, and some people still believe NZ petrol fuels contained illegally-high concentrations of lead.

            Anyway, just for fun the following may be slightly relevant. When the CSC went to court against NIWA, one of their claims was that NIWA was obliged to comply with Section 5.1.b of the CRI Act ” That a Crown Research Institute should pursue excellence in all its activities: “. The CSC claimed that using a thesis as the basis for manipulation of some data, when more appropriate alternatives were available, was not excellence. The court said it was not qualified to compare the merits of scientific processes. NIWA’s successful response was that the provisions of S5 of the CRI Act are not couched in the language of duty, but rather as “principles of operation”. They submitted that, at most, the CRI Act obligations were aspirational.


  • NIWA’s reaction to hearing the truth spoken (by NZAS) seems to have been to misrepresent that truth, i.e. by saying that NZAS “actively lobbies against science and the integrity of scientists”, when in fact NZAS’s comments are clearly actively lobbying for science and the integrity of scientists! Speaking the truth is often a very unpopular thing to do, and leaves one open to retaliation by bullies (here played by NIWA). So what is the “ugly truth” here? Basically, it is just that, under the current government, who are big on economics, but not so shit hot on science or environment, pure science and public good applied science (e.g. biosecurity, conservation) are losing out to commercially (profit making) oriented applied science. However, NZAS seems to have focussed on two aspects of this, namely (1) restrictions on what can be said in public by scientists about issues which they are being funded to work on; and (2) the credibility of results which are funded by commercial interests which have a “preferred outcome” in mind. While these two issues are serious, they are rather specific, and are the result of a bigger picture problem.

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