When scientists don't speak out – gag orders and funding fears revealed

There’s been much debate about the forthcoming Code of Conduct on Public Engagement the Royal Society of New Zealand is developing.

This piece of work is part of the Government’s Science in Society Strategy and is laid out in Annex 4 of this document, which outlines initiatives that will be rolled out as part of the Strategy including:

“The RSNZ will lead development of a code of practice on engagement for scientists. To begin 2014/15.”

I was involved in a expert reference group for the Science in Society project so I heard about the proposed code early on.

From my perspective, it would be useful to clarify the type of interactions with the public scientists can engage in. I manage the Science Media Centre, which collects and publishes commentary from scientists often at short notice and often on controversial issues. As such, we rely on the ability of scientists to be able to speak freely on issues in their areas of expertise that are of importance to society. We quote more university scientists than Crown research institute scientists because the former group has more freedom to comment – and turn things around quickly for the media.

The situation varies by organisation – some university departments tightly manage access to the media, particularly if the scientists are involved in industry collaborations. Others would rather journalists deal directly with scientists and have little interest in monitoring what their scientists are commenting on. Some CRIs require all media-related queries to go through a central communications unit. Others let scientists use their own judgement and talk to the media without prior authorisation – according to pre-agreed ground rules.

We navigate all scenarios, not always successfully. The point is, there is no one way of engaging with the public or the media. I’d love more clarity around what scientists can and can’t say and when.

From the answers to the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ most recent survey, if appears scientists would also like the ground rules clarified.

When asked in the survey: “Have ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy, or by fear of losing research funding, the results were as follow:

Source: NZAS Survey 2014
Source: NZAS Survey 2014

So that is around 40 per cent of survey respondents who have been prevented from making a public statement, either because their management said they couldn’t or because they feared having funding cut.

The anonymous comments collected as part of the survey and published on the NZAS website outline numerous examples of this. They include:

[redacted] terminated my employment because of unauthorised media comment

and

We are expressly prevented from making any comment to the public without prior approval. On contentious issues such as GMOs and plant import we are not to make any comment at all under any circumstance. That role is now exclusively the mandate of management.

and

In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academics speaking in public on controversial issues or on issues that might impact on the reputation of the institution itself. These attempts have been in breach of the principle of academic freedom and undermine our statutory duty to act as critic and conscience of society.

This mirrors the sort of anecdotes I regularly hear as scientists sheepishly tell me why they can’t contribute to one of our SMC expert round-ups on an issue in their area of expertise.

On the other hand, there may be good reasons why it is inappropriate for a scientist to go public on an issue. Maybe a colleague is far better qualified to talk about it, is more media savvy and better at communicating risk and uncertainty.

When is and isn’t it legitimate for management to instruct scientists not to speak out on an issue relevant to their area of expertise?

This is the sort of thing I hope the consultation around the development of the Code of Practice will flush out. The NZAS survey is a helpful precursor to that.

3 Comments

  1. Mathew

    Yes and this gagging would be the “problem” in communicating to “the public”
    The idea scientists are not the public is a strange one.The us and them.
    Surely on the road driving home we are all “the public” .
    Maybe that we feel like we are separate from others is part of the problem, for what contract or corporate non disclosure would make you feel you not part of humanity?
    http://thenewamerican.com/tech/environment/item/22402-top-scientist-un-climate-finance-is-subsidy-for-kleptocracy

  2. Brendan Moyle

    I can see the value in such a thing. I wonder if it also needs to be circulated widely among media as well. It might be nice to push harder on ensuring the person being quoted is an expert on the topic.

    I think another dimension (outside the funding/policy concerns) is now, the internet is “forever”. It’s easy now to ‘mine for quotes’ to try to discredit people you disagree with. This is not uncommon in controversial topics.

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