Scientists need to hold policy-makers to account

By Shaun Hendy 30/09/2014

Over on Public Address last week, New Zealand Association of Scientists President, Dr Nicola Gaston, wrote a very important post on Science and Democracy. When politicians ignore scientific advice, or special interests seek to undermine such advice, how should scientists react? Dr Gaston considers the guidance on offer for scientists in such circumstances in the Royal Society of New Zealand’s code of ethics and rules.

Dr Gaston’s post is very timely. In Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics it was alleged that ex-MP Katherine Rich arranged for the posting of “hits” on a popular blog in order to undermine scientific advice about the health risks of consuming alcohol or fatty, sugary foods. While Rich, who is Chief Executive of the Food and Grocery Council, is no longer a politician, the blog also appears to have been used by current members of the government to leak information for political gain. By leaking to a blogger who operated outside the ethical constraints that bind mainstream journalists, the government lent the blog an authority that was then exploited to mount attacks on the credibility of New Zealand scientists.

In such an environment, it is increasingly difficult for scientists to remain neutral. Indeed, a group of prominent public health researchers recently called publicly for Rich to resign from the board of the Health Promotion Agency, a government-funded sponsor of public health programmes.

On Monday, Sir Peter Gluckman weighed in, drawing on his impressions of the recent Science Advice to Goverments conference.  In his blog post, and in the recent report on Science and Society, A Nation of Curious Minds, Sir Peter says that the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) should “develop a code of practice for scientists on public engagement” [1]. Sir Peter cites the Code of Conduct developed by the Science Council of Japan as the best example of such a code: it “outlines not only the responsible conduct of research but also the social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge” [1].

Holding policymakers to account

For the most part the Japanese code covers very similar ground to the Royal Society’s code of ethics, but specifically includes a section entitled Science and Society that deals with engagement with the public and with policy-makers. This section was added to the code in 2013 after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, which highlighted a “need for scientists to re-examine whether they had truly responded to the trust and mandate given to them by society” [2].

The revision of the code followed an independent enquiry into the disaster that found “fault in nuclear regulators for not paying sufficient attention to improvements in nuclear safety standards, as recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency” and found that “the Japanese Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency had been promoting nuclear energy without being open about the inherent risks” [3].

Most importantly, there is a clause in the Japanese code that goes well beyond anything that is in our own:

In the event that a policy decision is made that diverges from the advice of the scientific community, scientists shall request, as necessary, accountability to society from the policy planner and/or decision maker.

In Japan, it seems that the nuclear industry and the government was guilty of ignoring available scientific evidence about the safety of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant [4]:

“.. research on the Jogan tsunami of 869 AD has shown that such heights should not be considered “unanticipated” along the part of the Japanese coast that includes the Fukushima
nuclear complex. However these probabilities were ultimately dismissed through the internal discussion of the division on the grounds that they were ‘academic’.”

Under their new code, Japanese scientists would have had a mandate to publicly challenge their government to raise safety standards and to fully explain the risks as well as the benefits of nuclear power. This new code empowers Japanese scientists to hold policymakers to account in public if they ignore or dismiss the scientific advice they receive. It is a call it arms for the Japanese science community.

The critic and conscience

There is no equivalent clause in our code, although it does state that members should have the aim of “fostering of informed critical responses to issues relating to science, technology, or the humanities”. Rather, the intent of the Japanese code seems much closer to that of the New Zealand Education Act, which states that universities must act as the “critic and conscience of society”. Indeed, academics in New Zealand often turn to this description of their role when confronting the difficult decision of when to speak out on controversial issues.

But while New Zealand academics are empowered in this way, scientists in our Crown Research Institutes are not. And as Dr Gaston points out in her blog, even academic scientists have come under attack when trying to give science advice on difficult matters.

Could New Zealanders be put at risk by officials who ignore scientific evidence? If you don’t think it could happen here, I suggest you read the independent report into last year’s Fonterra botulism scare: some of the findings of this report echo those of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi enquiry. We got away with it in the end; sadly, the Japanese didn’t.

Most scientists accept that scientific knowledge is just one of the factors that politicians and policy-makers must take into account when making decisions. In return, scientists expect their advice to be weighed seriously by politicians, whether or not that advice is ultimately followed. Indeed, John Key was the first New Zealand Prime Minister to appoint a Chief Science Advisor, but as he says “we don’t always like his advice and we don’t always listen to him.”

However, there is a difference between weighing scientific advice alongside other concerns, and the undermining or outright rejection of that advice as being without merit. When politicians neglect to weigh the scientific evidence adequately, lives and livelihoods are put at risk. It is chilling to compare the dismissal of the risks of tsunami by Japan’s nuclear industry (‘academic’) to Key’s put down on BBC Hardtalk of Dr Mike Joy, the Massey University scientist who has drawn attention to the deteriorating quality of our rivers and lakes:

He’s one academic, and like lawyers, I can provide you with another one that will give you a counterview.

Dr Gaston and Sir Peter have kicked off a very timely discussion of how best to ensure that the voice of the scientific community is not muzzled or ignored by politicians or policy-makers, as so tragically occurred in Japan. We have an opportunity to strengthen our Code of Ethics* in a way that would protect the ability of both academic and CRI scientists to speak out on difficult issues. The public’s confidence and trust in the scientific community rests on our ability and willingness to stand up when the public interest is threatened.


* Although a change to the Code of Ethics would not supersede the employment relationships between the CRIs and their scientists, their act requires that CRIs “comply with any applicable ethical standards”, which would presumably include relevant sections of the Royal Society’s code.

[1] A Nation of Curious Minds – A National Strategic Plan for Science and Society, July 2014.

[2] Code of Conduct for Scientists – Revised Version – (Approved at the executive board of the Science Council of Japan on Jan. 25, 2013, and translated from the original Japanese version)

[3] “Japan nuclear plants ‘still not safe’” Al-Jazeera News, 23 July 2012.

[4] Y. Funabashi and K. Kitazawa “Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1 March 2012).

0 Responses to “Scientists need to hold policy-makers to account”

  • I’m confused as to why the Fonterra botulism scare appears as an example of officials ignoring scientific advice. That problem appeared to have several major contributing factors.

    1. Using a torch to examine the internals of working plant, with the torch being sucked in and the plastic lens shattering. Surely other contaminants could also be sucked into the inlet pipe, so did the plant SOP permit such activity – if so, why wan’t the torch suitably robust and secured externally?.
    2. Assembling a rework system for the contaminated product and using only alkali cleaning processes without an acid clean. The cleaning protocols for such rework systems should have been validated for such non-routine assemblies.
    3. Using Agresearch to identify whether botulism was present, when their proposed testing regime was inadequate to deliver an unambiguous result. The scientists should have been explicit about the limitations of their testing before starting.

    If anything, the officials took too much notice of scientists.

  • How does a scientist know when the public interest is threateaned? There is a danger that the scientist might actually be parading his or her own interest as the public interest. In your presentation at MSD on Tuesday you presented evidence for those most strongly claiming objectivity turning out to be less objective than they actually thought. It seems to me there is a similar problem here. A scientist standing up in the face of a percieved threat to the public interest would need to carefully examine his or her own motives and fitness to decide. Crossing a line here would not be in the science community’s interest in gaining or maintaining the public’s confidence and trust.