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Silencing scientists integral to National’s anti-science DNA

Written By: - Date published: 1:34 pm, May 11th, 2016 - 40 comments
Categories: climate change, science - Tags: , , , ,

muzzledA new book, Silencing Science, by one of New Zealand’s leading scientists, Shaun Hendy, detailing how this government muzzles scientists, is just one chromosome of this government’s anti-science DNA.

At the heart of this stance is this government’s refusal, or at best, extreme reluctance, to accept the science of climate change, or that of the pollution of our land and water by over-intense dairy farming, mainly because of vested interests representing farming within the National Party.

In his valedictory speech last year, former Green Party Co-leader, Russel Norman, labelled John Key a climate denier, but actually probably at bottom he accepts scientific truths, it’s just that he is so unprincipled, he is prepared to deny them for money and politics.

The supreme irony is that the National Party claims to represent business and capitalism, but virtually every creditable pundit, including some within National, recognises that the only way New Zealand will maintain a reasonable living standard is by investing in science and innovation, rather than its current reliance on commodities, such as milk powder and logs.

National has stifled business-led innovation via a multitude of methods, but mainly through its tried and true technique to cutting spending which it has honed in education, health and welfare.

National unwisely revealed in 2014 plans to cut the overall research investment in real terms by 10.2 percent over the following three years, and by 21 percent out to 2023/24, according to page 18 of the 2014 Draft National Statement of Science Investment. However, because people have cottoned on to this dire proposed cut, the government has since stopped including science spending forecasts. Another muzzling.

New Zealand already spends under half of the OECD average on Research & Development.

Hendy, director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a centre of research excellence and Physics Professor of Auckland University, in conjunction with the late Paul Callaghan, of the Callaghan Institute fame, has expressed views in a previous book, Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy, about the country’s wrong direction for science spending.

The book’s title, in itself a succinct criticism of National’s policies of our reliance on dairying and failure to meaningfully address climate change, argues the income gap between New Zealand and Australia and other economies is caused by a “knowledge gap” marked by our relatively low output of patented intellectual property (IP). That could be put right by more and better directed government spending on R&D.

As well, it argues, this government’s directive to have science more directed towards applied applications – ie business – has been inappropriately biased towards our traditional land-based activities – especially agriculture – instead of focusing on developing IT and other advanced manufacturing and service activities. We should be “exporting knowledge, not nature”.

In his latest book, Silencing Science, he felt the need to go to print because scientists are being cut out of public debate, not necessarily by direct actions, but often indirectly, often with severe consequences.

Hendy, a former president of the Association of Scientists, said, increasingly, scientists have commercial contracts with government that put constraints on what they can say publicly.

He told Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand’s Nine-to-noon that in a crisis it can be a disastrous constraint, as it was in the 2013 Fonterra botulism scare, when the company’s milk products manager, Gary Ramano, got the science “horribly wrong” by saying that botulism could be in the company’s products.

Fonterra, notorious for its controlling and incompetent PR, stopped a scientist from fronting the media and paid severe consequences, which had spinoff effects for New Zealand’s reputation and for other businesses.

Hendy notes that the government has signed many leading scientists to advisory bodies for such as the Cabinet and their contracts constrain what they can say in public. Hendy said some had told them they were muzzled during the botulism crisis.

Prior to this government, we would have had a Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries scientist fronting the issue.

“It’s gone too far. The spin and message control has got stronger. They are less willing to put scientists out there to talk to the public because of the inability to control the message” Hendy said.

Scientists should be able to work for a government department and talk to the public on the basis of their expertise, he said.

As well, self censorship has become a major factor since so much science funding comes via competitive tendering and is often short-term and therefore insecure.

“I have been asked over and over again whether I am afraid of losing my funding for putting this book out there.”

“You definitely hear from people in the scientific community being told to pull their ears in, particularly ahead of the Budget,” he said. “There is a sense that our science funding, particularly for the government, is linked to our good behaviour as scientists.”

‘We are nervous. We have all heard stories of people losing their funding – so we self censor.”

Hendy has proposed the establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Science to ensure scientific advice gets out to the public.

Scientist, Nick Lambrechtsen, in a letter in today’s Dominion Post, supports the idea of such an independent body to counter “the suppression of scientific information and the spreading of misinformation by corporate lobbyists.”

“It would be nice to see the present government establish such a body to complement the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, but it probably awaits a change of government,” he wrote.

Look for more flannel on science spending and innovation in this month’s Budget, but check out inflation-adjusted spending.

(Simon Louisson formerly worked for The Wall Street Journal, NZPA, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and was most recently a political and media adviser to the Green Party)


40 comments on “Silencing scientists integral to National’s anti-science DNA ”

  1. joe90 1

    Eighteen long months…

    Nine years of censorship

    Canadian scientists are now allowed to speak out about their work — and the government policy that had restricted communications.


    Set to silence

    The crackdown on government scientists in Canada began in 2006, after Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party was elected prime minister. During the nine-year Harper administration, the government placed a priority on boosting the economy, in part by stimulating development and increasing the extraction of resources, such as petroleum from the oil sands in Alberta. To speed projects along, the administration eased environmental regulations. And when journalists sought out government scientists to ask about the impacts of such changes, or anything to do with environmental or climate science, they ran into roadblocks.


  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    Scientists should be able to work for a government department and talk to the public on the basis of their expertise, he said.

    Not only should they be able to it should be their duty to do so. The government should not have PR departments.

    As well, self censorship has become a major factor since so much science funding comes via competitive tendering and is often short-term and therefore insecure.

    The exact opposite of what’s needed. In fact, Mariana Mazzucato makes the point in The Entrepreneurial State one of the major reasons that the US technology sector took off so well was because of the secure decades long funding that the US Federal government provided to both public and private research. A hell of a lot of tech simply would not exist without that funding and a hell of a lot of tech companies both in and outside the US wouldn’t either (Most US research funding comes with the requirement of the research being public domain afterwards).

    It is essential that scientists be able to speak their minds to the public.

  3. DFool 3

    Its not just that the Government of the day might not like the message that the scientists bring on the big issues of the day for ideological or budgetary reasons, its that any unanticipated and unconstrained engagement with scientists and researchers brings costs upfront (unbudgeted for staff hours dealing with research applications, communications, consultation etc) and can potentially have financial ramifications down the line outside the scope of application/research and not at all the responsibility of the researcher to worry about, but nevertheless present in the minds of management. Alot of it is mid-level butt-and-budget covering.

    I have currently hit a brick wall with an agency I am dealing with, with regards to a permitting issue. Its not that the benefits of the research arent obvious, or that there are any direct costs for the organisation involved, or that they arent interested or individually supported. In fact, its a project that has been indicated in strategic documents for 30 years and which key stakeholders strongly support.

    Its just mostly that they arent budgeted to deal with me in any meaningful manner (meetings, phone calls, site visits, coffee and biscuits do add up) and are already stretched and pulled in so many other areas. They are also worried about my findings introducing additional albeit relatively minor operating costs in the great scheme of things or public pressure to do spend likewise (again, maybe a few tens of thousands of additional costs, in an organisation with a budget of several hundred million).

    • True that? Interesting. I appreciate this insight

      • DFool 3.1.1

        Mid-career PhD student, externally funded, working in a research area I was involved with in a previous job, excellent support from external stakeholders, nationally and potentially internationally significant findings, no problem with existing permits etc and the possibility/ramifications of my findings were indicated in the original research strategy submitted to the permitting authority in 2012. Hit a road block a year ago when I found what I had always indicated I might find. Havent managed to get thigns back on track yet and a bit burned out/bummed out by it all to be honest.

  4. greywarshark 4

    The only things that politicians want you to know, is what they want you to know today.
    And today NASA has found 100 new stars or something. Isn’t that great. NASA is opening a small office handling real estate futures, and options. /sarc

    It has also detected nine small planets within the so-called habitable zone, where conditions are favourable for liquid water – and potentially life.
    The finds are contained within a catalogue of 1284 new planets detected by Kepler – which more than doubles the previous tally.

    Homer Simpson and his contribution to space science.

    Also demonstrating science for us everyday Joes.

  5. Yes I read this with interest in the Dom Post the other day. As a budding, wannabe scientist (currently serving my research apprenticeship, which I should really get back to instead of this foray into NZ’s political scene) who hopes to make a career in NZ, these issues are relevant to me and should be to us all. Naively, I’ve always thought that NZ should pursue something like a knowledge economy; our exports should be based on innovation and tech. That’s the stuff we should be selling to the rest of the world. We are too far away to do much else. We should be telling the world how to do everything smarter and better, more efficiently and with clean tech. And leading by example. Collecting on those fat royalties. Or something…

    Well that was my ignorant vision. Anyways, yes, Govt. needs to get with the program and up the R&D. Silencing science actually ends up affecting the bottom line (e.g. Fonterra botulism thing) so why perpetuate such inefficiency?

    • lprent 5.1

      our exports should be based on innovation and tech.

      It is there. Takes quite a while to build up.

      I have been a programmer who specialises in being employed by companies who export more than 90% of their sales. When I started exclusively doing that in 1995, it was a real pain. No capital and really hard to find people with relevant skills and damn hard to access our markets. These days it is just hard to find enough skilled people to cope with the growth of being small niche market players in a global market.

      But as much as I hate to say it, my dreams of doing it rural have evaporated. You need too many support companies, specialised contractors, and an ability to easily shift jobs. In short you need Auckland.

  6. greywarshark 6

    Mike Joy water scientist has received close attention from NZ gummint, mostly trying to shut him up. Ecologists keep presenting unpleasant scenarios and statistics and budgets.

    Controversial dam likely to go ahead (Ruataniwha Dam Hawkes Bay) 27 April 2016
    The cost of the project recently jumped 50 percent to over $900 million…
    Meanwhile, Greenpeace has urged Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to ditch the dam for the sake of the environment and the economy….

    Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis said a range of farms – including sheep and beef, cropping and about 20 percent dairy – would be irrigated….
    Investors still need to be secured too, but he understood ACC was in the mix and he was now 95 percent certain the dam would be built.

    Green Party…”But it’s still a very fragile project, because what they’re doing is they’re relying on, not only on the $80 million from ratepayers in the region, but also on investors such as ACC.”
    Massey University water quality scientist Mike Joy was almost lost for words when told enough farmers had signed up.
    “Well I’m just staggered, I can’t believe it. We know that 80 percent of dairy farmers are having to borrow just to stay in business given the price of milk at the moment,

    On Mike Joy

    Water quality around NZ
    Faecal contamination in Christchurch waterways. Duck this one. Dec 2015
    Frightful levels of E coli in Heathcote River April 2016

    • Ad 6.1

      We’re going to need more water storage on New Zealand’s east coasts, with or without more dairy farming.

  7. There is also the problem, that people as a rule do not want to hear the truth, show them this website, http://guymcpherson.com/ and you get shot down in flames.
    Suggest that not adding to the problem by stopping human reproduction is an absolute no no, can’t mention http://www.vhemt.org no no no.
    Even on this site you are told not to comment if your ‘truth’ doesn’t match the uninformed norm.
    And to try and convince 2.6 million KiwiSavers, that they are just pissing their money away on bullshit dreams, that can only be realized with the even faster destruction of the atmosphere (which I don’t think we can actually do, as it is sooo fucked now) is another social no no.
    So just because a few paid to keep their mouths shut so called scientists don’t have at least the guts Guy McPherson had, then who is to blame??
    What do they want a guaranteed pension plan, on another planet? Because that is about all there is worth protecting, as anything on this planet will be short lived, so maybe the scientists are in cloud cuckoo land as well?
    ‘Thin Ice’ thiniceclimate.org , was an opportunity to come out with a bit of truth, instead of a play for more funding?? To see what? How it is impossible to change anything?
    You only have to look at the CO2 graph on the right of this page, that shit isn’t going away, if there was no ice, humans would have been long gone, and you don’t need a BSC to work it out.
    bla bla bla

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      The funniest thing is this 0.01% wealthy class who have taken all this trouble to steal and hide all these $$$ in tax havens around the world, impoverishing their own countries peoples and degrading their own countries infrastructure and resiliency in the process.

      And when shit goes down hard, which I am picking will happen in <40 years, all those $$$ will be even more worthless than they are now.

      • Robert Atack 7.1.1

        It is kind of a good thing, that all that ‘spending’ is locked away.
        Like isn’t it better for 1 person to drive a $200,000 car, than it is 20 people driving 20 cars?
        Sorry this is kind of a rightwing view I guess, but the more even the money is distributed the more TV,cars, and alas children there would be.
        It sucks I know.
        Like the BS ideas of everyone living in a warm house, just wait and the whole planet might be at a uniformed 20C ? To heat the living space of every human! wow! nuclear power plants for Africa.
        I’m reasonably confident the environment (well the human friendly one) hasn’t 40 years left (4 maybe), but I think we would agree the exponential growth industry can’t run much longer.

        • Colonial Viper

          I think 4 years before it goes seriously upside down is a bit pessimistic…but who knows…I’d be happy to split the difference at 22 years though…2038.

          By then I think it will be apparent to all even the ultra elite that hell is sliding down the pike in a big way.

          Unfortunately at that stage it will be like trying to pull the parachute rip cord 100m above the ground.

      • greywarshark 7.1.2

        Perhaps the play to perform this year is The Admirable Crichton where an aristocratic family become isolated on an island and the butler is the only person with practical survival abilities and the ability to organise and lead the group. Possession of money is of no use, nor societal position, practical qualities and psychological aptitude are the ultimate requirements.

        First performed in 1902 when class was all in Britain. Now it is back again, growing exponentially with the new nouveau riche, it is the theme for the present.

        • Colonial Viper

          Oh very nice I knew nothing about this play…thanks for the pointer, GWS.

        • Jilly Bee

          Oh yes, I remember that film many a long year ago, but was too young to really get the message – Kenneth More was the butler.

    • weka 7.2

      “There is also the problem, that people as a rule do not want to hear the truth, show them this website, http://guymcpherson.com/ and you get shot down in flames.”

      It probably would have helped a lot if Mcpherson hadn’t misrepresented his opinions as fact.

      • Robert Atack 7.2.1

        Oh, so the graph up on the right is just an opinion?
        The Indians baking, Canadians burning, and the millions facing starvation due to crop failure, oh and the pacific island sinking into the oceans, and the extinction event on the coral reefs, all opinion?
        All good then.
        Must go and register for the greens KiwiSaver scheme.

        • weka

          That Mcpherson, or anyone, can tell the truth sometimes doesn’t mean that other times they’re can’t be misleading. I’d have considerably less problem with his work if he was honest about where he is talking opinion. Instead he claims as fact that we are going extinct, and that it’s too late for the world. But he doesn’t actually know that. No-one does.

          And because tonight you seem to be at your very lowest powers of argument, I will point out that what I just said in no way precludes talking about how serious climate change is. All my criticisms about Mcpherson are based on wanting the situation to be taken seriously. You know this about me, so please don’t be disingenous.

          • Robert Atack

            Sorry Weka, but I think Guy does the math right, when you hear several so called qualified people making statements like we have done XYZ -10,000 times faster than the last big extinction event, and there is 50 million years or so of CH4 locked under the current fast sinking melt level, you have to come up with extinction. There are just too many positive feedbacks kicking in.
            409 ppm CO2 @ the north pole at the moment, 430 ish above parts of China.
            Any thoughts we might have of pulling ourselves away from this cliff edge, are a form of insanity, along the same lines as worshiping the invisable man in the sky.
            It is beyond our abilities to change the situation, supposedly (thanks scientists) the environment has gone up 6C within 10 years in the past, now if we are 10,000 times faster at getting to this point than before, couldn’t there be as drastic if not faster increase in global temperatures ? And didn’t ‘we’ go up .3c last year? March/March.
            Only time will tell I suppose.
            It is just our bad luck to be alive to watch it happening.

            • weka

              It’s pretty easy for me to make the arguments for keeping on trying. Not least, but not only, is that the analysis might be wrong. So it’s not insane to leave room for change, it’s actually the only sane thing to do. Even if the best we can do is prevent some other species from falling off the cliff, that is still a worthy thing to do.

              And thanks for prefacing that with “I think”. That’s all I’m asking. For people to acknowledge that we know things are very bad, but we don’t in fact know what is going to happen.

              • Colonial Viper

                It’s pretty easy for me to make the arguments for keeping on trying. Not least, but not only, is that the analysis might be wrong.

                Well, what about the deniers who say that there is no real problem, and who say that your analysis or Hanson’s analysis might be wrong.

                It’s absolutely the same argument, after all.

                I’ll tell you what I think is the most logical course ahead.

                That we get NZ and NZers ready for a world where 3-4 deg C temp rise with massive variability in the climate is the most likely scenario. And where access to fossil fuels (whether self imposed for climate reasons, or physically imposed by peak oil) is going to plummet around 25 years from now.

                NZ trying to cut a bit of CO2 output here or there will do nothing to change the trajectory the world is on, and will do nothing to get us ready for the nasty future currently coming down the pike.

                • weka

                  I think you’ve misunderstood. My objection isn’t to Mcpherson’s analysis. It’s that he claims it’s the one true way. He believes we are doomed but instead of presenting that as his opinion he says it as if it’s a fact. It’s not. The reason this is an issue is because the way he presents his analysis is likely to engender avoidance in a lot of people at the very time when it is absolutely critical that people engage and act. Why should someone give up their cost western lifestyle if it’s too late?

                  Yes denialists with influence who also present their view as fact are a problem, but I was specifically addressing the issue of McPherson. He holds sway in some critical parts of society that the denialists will no longer be reaching.

                  • Colonial Viper

                    McPherson touting that his own analysis and projections are but the one true way is a problem yes. But in fact its only a true problem if we are blind to that and become a pure McPherson adherent.

                    And even if you did, it doesn’t change the fact that his future scenarios need to be taken into account.

                    Personally I feel that there is a 5% or greater chance that he will be right. And if correct, that in itself demands a certain kind of attention and action.

                    • weka

                      “But in fact its only a true problem if we are blind to that and become a pure McPherson adherent.”

                      That is indeed part of the problem. I think it’s also a problem that he is engendering alarm and fear along with the message that it is too late. Most people (not the hardcore Mcpherson followers) are not going to respond to that by going yes we need to dig in and make radical change now. There is a whole bigger conversation around that that would be good to have some time. My main concern is the people who are aware of CC, just starting to get how serious it really is and who are looking for a path of action. The path Mcpherson prosposes is IMO not only wrong but deadly.

                      Personally I feel that there is a 5% or greater chance that he will be right. And if correct, that in itself demands a certain kind of attention and action.

                      And that’s certainly a framing I can get behind. We’re in serious danger of destroying everything, and we need to act now, and here are some of the things we can do…

                      (I’ll just repeat, I don’t think Mcpherson is necessarily wrong about extinction. I just think we don’t know yet and while there is a still a chance that we can avert that, we need to work towards that, not towards accepting our doom).

                    • Colonial Viper

                      That is indeed part of the problem. I think it’s also a problem that he is engendering alarm and fear along with the message that it is too late.

                      To me it’s not a message about being “too late”. (Too late for what, by the way? I would say that we’re already too late for 2 deg C warming).

                      It’s a message around what is the most likely trajectory that we are on. It’s about realism not optimism. And getting ready for that.

              • Robert claims to disagree with Guy/NTHE, but it looks like he is coming around?
                robertscribbler / May 11, 2016
                Well, we passed the 400 ppm atmospheric average last year. This year there’s good odds that we will not see any one month below 400 ppm in the Mauna Loa average. After 2016, we will never see 400 ppm again without anything other than a miraculous change of heart among nations, a sudden halt to fossil fuel burning, a heroic effort in land management, a huge helping of amazing luck when it comes to carbon feedbacks, and some massive deployment of carbon absorbing materials. So yeah, unless we really change things now and we are very, very lucky, it’s by-by 400 ppm for our lifetime and for scores to hundreds to thousands of lifetimes to come. We’ve basically set the Earth on a path toward a rapid transition to another geological era. And the way we are doing it is unprecedented in all of the history of nature.

                • weka

                  So improbable but not technically impossible. I don’t really care how we save the planet if it gets done, so why would we want to shut the door on a Hail Mary pass? People who preach it’s too late are part of the problem because they are promoting inaction.

  8. Incognito 8

    The genial Sir Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

    The collaborative spirit is particularly strong among scientists and pure curiosity is a strong driver & motivator for many. As such, neo-liberalism and free market ideology are often in direct conflict with the ideals of science and regularly clash with scientists.

    Unfortunately, the resulting increased selfishness and competition is not unique to the realm of science and scientists; other professions that strongly depend on collaboration are suffering from the same ill-effects.

  9. save nz 9

    Great post +100

  10. Incognito 10

    Last Sunday, before the release of his book, a very insightful Q & A interview by Jamie Morton with Shaun Hendy appeared in the NZ Herald Prominent scientist talks about Silencing Science.

    Interestingly, Steven Joyce was given an opportunity to respond and comment.

    Unsurprisingly, Hendy’s reasonable arguments fell on deaf ears:

    Mr Joyce also disagreed that a new independent parliamentary body representing science was warranted, saying this was what the political process was for.

    “There is never going to be a system where politics is subsumed, in these more politically controversial areas, to just a group of scientists having a strong view.

    “Because we have a political process and that’s democracy,” Mr Joyce said.

    “So, in my view, I don’t think there’s a need to keep adding additional arbiters simply because [Professor Hendy] is not getting the answers he wants.

    “Most people would say that just because a group of scientists want something to happen, doesn’t necessarily mean it should happen: it’s still subject to the political process.”

    Here it is clearly expressed by Joyce, for all of us to see and take note of: scientists are not supposed to have an independent voice and their messages need to be conveyed to the public (voters) through and by politicians (who happen to hold the purse strings and set policy & regulatory framework). The conduit for science communication (on ‘controversial’ issues) is not the (or any) media but politicians.

    Why are our Ministers so desperate to control data and flow of information? Why do they even pervert the spirit & workings of the OIA?

    In essence, Hendy’s argument is that scientists have a responsibility, an obligation, to directly communicate with the public, which, after all, pays for much of what scientists are doing. Similarly, the public is curious and demands answers to complex questions & problems that are free from spin and undue (political) influence.

    Yes, Joyce is right in the sense that ultimately decisions are political ones but his sub-text is again very clear: leave it to the politicians rather than the public. His reasoning is quite disingenuous and belittling – as if Hendy and scientists only want it their way and act like petulant little children if they get told “no” – and his ‘interpretation’ of the political process and democracy (in action) is certainly different from mine!

    • Simon Louisson 11.1

      Yes – very good

      • whateva next? 11.1.1

        Was the heavily promoted TVone”Kiwimeter-….What kind of Kiwi are you?” merely National’s free survey to continue being able to manipulate the message to suit the desires of the swing voters?

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