Gagging of scientists – a common problem?

By Ken Perrott 25/06/2015 1


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A recent NZ Association of Scientists survey indicates that 40% of NZ scientists report they feel gagged from communicating their scientific findings to the public. Management policies and funding problems were blamed and there are issues around “embarrassing the government.”

The Science and Innovation Minister, Stephen Joyce, is not convinced by the survey results but is unwilling to accept there is a problem without  “a heck of a lot more evidence than we’ve got from one write-in survey.” (See Call for closer look at scientists’ claims | Radio New Zealand News.)  You can be sure he won’t go out of his way to look for such evidence.

Wider than direct censorship

Despite Joyce’s attempts to “turn a blind eye,” I think there is a problem and can certainly remember examples from my time working in a Crown Research Institute (these problems may not be as bad in the Universities). But the problem is wider than direct censorship – limiting publication because of commercial sensitivity, protection of intellectual property,  fear of scaring away or offending potential funders and succumbing to legal action – or just threats of legal action – from commercial interests.

There is also the gagging effect arising from the institutional culture, the attitudes and perceived interests of management bureaucracy, the old-boy network (which these days incorporates people from the commercial  sectors as well as the government and political system). I experienced an example of the old-boy network when a National MP attempted to get my director to “discipline” me because I had made a public statement on nuclear disarmament! I am sure this sort of “behind the scenes” pressure is exerted all the time on research institute managements by commercial and political figures. And how often do management figures consider the interests of freedom of expression and information, or the responsibility of science to communicate with the public, when subjected to such pressure with its implied threats to the funding or “name” of the institute?  Or to the career of the management figure themselves?

Wider than one’s own research

The issues, for and against, may be fairly clear when the findings being gagged are the research results of the scientists themselves. But scientists do have the responsibility to speak up about science itself, and about general findings which may not be directly linked to the narrow field of specialisation of the scientist concerned.

This is especially true today when so much pseudoscience and outright distortion of science is promoted in the public sphere. Very often the promotion is done in the interests of business so managements may feel the need to prevent staff from fulfilling such responsibilities so as to avoid commercial pressures on the institute.

A common example is the scientific misinformation peddled by the “natural”/alternative health industry, which today is a big and profitable business – despite attempting to present itself as the “David” challenging the “Goliath” of “Big Pharma.”

Institutional management may pressure staff not to face up to their responsibility to fight this misinformation – especially if they believe there may be possibilities of research contracts from businesses within that industry. Maybe management will express this in relatively bland terms such as the need to protect the “name” and “reputation” of the institute. Or express the concept that the institute should not be seen to be “taking sides” as this undermines its credibility and appearance of objectivity.

Becoming a “street fighter” or abdicating scientific responsibility?

Then, of course, there is just the outright viciousness of some anti-science campaigners. Getting into public fights with some ideologically motivated activists can be like participating in a pub brawl. Responsible management cannot be happy about staff being seen as “street fighters.”

Management also has a responsibility not to expose their staff to danger. In New Zealand District Health Boards have tended not to take part in public meetings which are stacked with anti-fluoride activists – partly for the safety reason. And recent reports of attacks on health spokespersons and city council leaders, by anti-fluoride activists, show this is a reasonable concern (see  Lismore mayor assaulted in broad daylight by fluoride-hater, and Beware the violent antis – Lismore Mayor physically assaulted).

33618It is a complex issue. On the one hand engagement with those who are misrepresenting science can sometimes end up like fighting a pig – one’s opponent is so slimy they can escape from any rational debate and the expert ends up just a dirty as the pig in the end. In the other hand not to take part in the public debate  results in the abdication of our scientific responsibilities and handing over the public issue to those who promote misinformation and pseudoscience. (In NZ anti-fluoride propagandists are continually claiming  the refusal of district health boards to front up to their meetings as evidence that science does not support fluoridation!)

Social media

Social media can be just as nasty to pro-science people who attempt to challenge misrepresentation and pseudoscience (have a look at the abuse rendered by the Australian anti-fluoride propagandist Dan Germouse here). There is little point in engaging extremists on social media – unless one is sure there are other readers, or “lurkers,” who may learn something from the exchange.

But one thing is sure, advocates of science do not use social media as often or as effectively as they should. Studies do show that pseudoscientific groups and those peddling scientific misinformation tend to dominate social media like Facebook and Twitter. Social media can be effective in creating opinions – and anyway it is a popular forum which we ignore at our peril.  Scientists need to find ways to effectively take part in social media – if we don’t we are abdicating our responsibility to society to defend science and oppose misinformation.

Conclusion

Gagging of scientists is much wider than the few cases where publication of individual research findings is restricted.Unfortunately institutional culture, its conservatism, authoritarianism and bureaucracy, inhibit the freedom of scientists to take part in the public debate around scientific issues. They inhibit participation in social media where much of the public debate occurs (see Science and social media in new Zealand). Institutional culture can therefore restrict a scientist’s ability to fulfill his or her responsibility to communicate science to the public and to oppose widespread misinformation and pseudoscience.

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