health & science

Are our scientists independent enough?

A rift between scientists and politicians is putting the public at risk, some in the science world argue. Could a Parliamentary Commissioner for Science be the answer?

When scientists are prevented from speaking out because of conflicts with politicians and commercial interests, everybody suffers. New Zealand has a Parliamentary Commissioner to provide independent advice on the environment, so why don’t we have the same for science?

It’s a question Kiwi physicist Shaun Hendy explores in his book Silencing Science.

Against the backdrop of the Canterbury earthquakes, Fonterra’s botulism scare and the Fukushima disaster, Hendy navigates the hurdles scientists in New Zealand face speaking out in times of emergency - and during slow-moving crises.

Whether beholden to funding or subject to the influence of corporate interests and lobby groups, it can be tricky and highly political for scientists to offer their opinion.

And when scientists are hamstrung, the ill-informed can seep into the vacuum.

Hendy warns of a rift between “our scientists, our politicians and the public” that’s putting the public at risk - especially when it comes to decision-making around climate change, water quality and food safety.

His recommendation: If we want independent advice, we need a Parliamentary Commissioner for Science.

In practice, the Commissioner would be very much “hands off”, responsible for advising Parliament - not just the Government of the day - and the public, Hendy tells Newsroom. It would also produce reports like the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on 1080, which had a big impact on public discourse.

It would also influence the way the Government uses evidence, and work to prevent the delay of important studies like the coastal guidance for councils - held back by the previous government and released following a Newsroom investigation into sea level rise.

While holding back negative results from publication is a completely “human” thing to do, Hendy says, it shows how progress of science can become hampered.

A Commissioner would make sure both positive and negative results saw the light of day.

There would be a degree of overlap with the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment but there’s currently a gap that needs filling, he says.

A more significant overlap would be with the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman - a role Hendy sees as compromised.

“If you look at the way the chief science advisor’s role has been set up, it’s an ad hoc committee established by the Prime Minister so it’s got that political association … rather a political appointment rather than an appointment that’s neutral and responsible to Parliament.”

The advisor role’s relationship with funding is also problematic, as Sir Peter directly advises where funding should go.

“You can’t be independent and also be negotiating with politicians over where the money should go.”

A Science Commissioner could leave Sir Peter to focus on advising the Prime Minister, easing the pressure of “appearing to be neutral”, Hendy says.

It’s a proposal the current Government is open to, but which Sir Peter himself says “doesn’t make sense”.

“I don’t see the point, though I do understand. I do a lot of work with other governments around Parliamentary Services and scientific advice and what we have and what most parliaments have is, they may have an officer for science to support parliament but effectively a lot of them are incorporated into the parliamentary library systems and they provide information,” Sir Peter says. “We do that here too.”

“It could probably be strengthened but in fact we provide parliamentary advisory services, the difference is New Zealand doesn’t have a strong select committee system and therefore we don’t have committees running scientific inquiries.”

His own office, the Royal Society, and in some cases the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment can all help with commissioning evidential research, he says.

“[A Commissioner for Science] makes no sense. It’s been well-canvassed around the world this issue. We’ve looked at a lot of systems. You’ve got to think what is the need and what is the deficit?”

But some in the field maintain there is a need.

University of Auckland Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, who also serves as the co-director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, believes scientific independence is even more difficult to achieve in a small country.

Gaston was the president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists at the time Hendy was motivated to write the book, after a survey the Association ran surfaced a number of stories of scientists who felt they couldn’t speak because of commercial sensitivities.

“New Zealand is a country which has a very large proportion of its scientists in government institutes, and they’re doing a lot of the work that’s most obviously public science … and yet they’re also often very much tied up in commercial arrangements because they’re expected to bring in between a third and half of their funding from relationships with industry," she says.

“We very quickly run out of people who aren’t conflicted.”

Tackling the problem also requires a culture change. The attitude that you shouldn’t speak out on science until you’re senior enough and have “earnt the right to speak” was discouraging, Gaston says.

Sir Peter Gluckman illustrated this sentiment well at an event in Brussels last year when he said individual scientists “too often exhibit hubris in reflecting on policy implications of science”.

However, the Labour Government isn’t opposed to the Science Commissioner idea. 

Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods says establishing one had been part of Labour policy in 2014, but was dropped in 2017 because of budget constraints.

That isn't to say it wouldn’t be back on the agenda at some point, but Woods says she doesn’t believe New Zealand has a problem with independent science advice.

“I don’t agree with Shaun (Hendy) that that is the case; it’s not an inherent pitfall with that model.

“I think his idea has merit … the work that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been doing in terms of giving that advice to Parliamentarians, not Ministers, is really useful ... so there is a need for there to be a greater understanding for people passing our legislation for the science ideas underpinning [it].”

Science advisors appointed by department - a number who were “independent thinkers” - are an underutilised resource, she says.

* 'Silencing Science' by Shaun Hendy is published by Bridget Williams Books

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