Should scientists be able to speak freely on topics of public interest? The issue came to light in October last year with the release of a survey from the New Zealand Association of Scientists, which found up to 40% of scientists said they felt unable to speak publicly about their field of expertise.
Following the survey, several scientists came forward complaining about restrictive policy and fears over funding.
Now a new code of conduct being put together by a group of top scholars and scientists, far from calming the waters, seems to be putting the cat among the pigeons once more.
The new guidelines from the Royal Society of New Zealand, are intended to “clarify the responsibilities and rights of scientists across the science sector”, says RSNZ chief executive Dr Andrew Cleland.
Some scientists point to fear from the scientific community that the RSNZ rules, which the society hopes will be adopted nationwide, are an attempt at silencing scientists who want to inform the public about issues pertaining to their work. Currently, a large number of New Zealand scientists work in Crown Research Institutes, which means, as government employees, there are restrictions on what they can state publicly about their work.
The new code should, first and foremost, put public interest ahead of commercial interests, says University of Auckland physics professor Shaun Hendy.
He says that New Zealand lacks sufficient funding for scientific research, and researchers often have to turn towards commercial contracts, subjecting them to the chilling effect of confidentiality clauses.
“[Scientific] results are being withheld if the results do not align with what the company wants,” says Hendy. “Science relies on more than just one report, and it’s a problem if only the positive gets reported.”
Image: University of Auckland physics professor Shaun Hendy
For scientists that are competing with each other for what little funding is publicly available, there’s a fear that speaking out against mainstream opinion means they could lose their funding.
“They worry about the lack of future funding,” Hendy says. “If they speak out, they’re potentially shooting themselves in the foot for their own future.”
Cleland says the society “supports scientists speaking out where justified for the public good, for example when there is unacceptable risk of significant environmental damage or to health or safety of people”.
However in other areas, more clarity is needed.
“Preliminary discussions with Crown Research Institutes (CRI) have indicated that a set of guidelines suitable to be voluntarily adopted nationally by both scientists and employers would be a successful outcome of that project.”
For more visible science communicators like Dr Michelle Dickinson, who runs University of Auckland’s nano-materials research laboratory and keeps an active social media presence, the roadblock is actually from other scientists who are more senior in their fields.
Hendy says a younger researcher such as Dickinson is seen as a threat to older, senior scientists, and is part of the reason the community is not backing them.
“They [senior scientists] are the ones the media traditionally go to, and are expected to do the talking. But social media circumvents that, and it’s disrupting.”
Commentators have floated the idea that scientists could find alternative means for funding, such as crowdfunding, however Hughes says such an option would only have a limited impact.
The alternative, according to Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP and spokesperson for science, would be something similar to the National Science Foundation in the United States, which supports fundamental research and education in all non-medical fields of science and engineering.
The foundation issues competitive, limited-term grants in response to specific proposals from the research community, which are funded based on a ‘merit review’ process.
Hughes says there’s also a level of politicking behind scientists being silenced.
“There’s a lack of political leadership [for science] at the moment,” Hughes says, and there’s a general consensus in Government that wants “scientists to stay behind their desks”.
“This is something the Government needs to take seriously, because we have an issue,” he says. “We need to encourage scientists to speak out so that we have an informed and engaged public.”