Silencing Science: in the long run, openness is the better strategy

The new book Silencing Science, by University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy highlights some recent examples of where scientists have been missing in action when the public needed their knowledge and insights the most.

hendyI can personally relate to this. During the Fonterra botulism scare, the 2014 Yersinia outbreak and for periods in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes, we struggled at the Science Media Centre to find experts who were willing to offer commentary to the media about what was going on.

Journalists were calling us asking for independent experts who could inform their reports. These were senior reporters who had a genuine interest in informing the public and they took their job of explaining the risk and uncertainty seriously.

We knew the people who had the expertise and the media training to handle these queries. But they were either instructed not to speak to the media or opted out due to concern for upsetting their management or funders.

In times of crisis, the first instinct is to pull up the drawbridge and funnel all communication through a carefully vetted, central source. But in today’s media environment, that is increasingly a flawed strategy. The examples Hendy catalogues show that it often does more harm than good.

The vacuum will be filled

Prof. Shaun Hendy

Journalists require diversity of sources – they won’t quote the same official over and over for long. This doesn’t mean that they want duelling experts – scientists who contradict each other and appear to be in conflict.

They know that their audience tires of hearing the same carefully prepared messages delivered by the same people. That’s why experts like Dr Mark Quigley and Professor Kevin Furlong had so much airtime post quakes.

A media vacuum will be filled by someone. If the sole source during a crisis is a government official or chief scientist, the media will seek out others in its desire for diversity of sources. If other scientists won’t step up, someone else will and they may spread misinformation or pseudoscience.

More experts need to be authorised and encouraged to front to the media in times of crisis. That was actually a finding of the inquiry into the Fonterra – botulism crisis.

It simply means that if the top experts in the country are drawn into an emergency response, or to review an incident, at least some of them are cleared to talk about the basic science relating to the issue and their fields of experience.

Government departments have learned from what happened with Fonterra and are increasingly trying to accommodate this in their risk communication strategies. The next big science-related crisis will be the test of how far they’ve come.

When experts censor themselves

But more insidious than the high profile examples Hendy references is the self-censorship experts regularly engage in. A lot of scientists we approach for comment decline to do so because they don’t want to rock the boat. It is easier to say no and eliminate the risk of making a mistake, being misquoted or wading into territory sensitive to managers or commercial clients.

This is particularly an issue when it comes to Crown Research Institutes, which hold large research contracts with companies and provide services for the government.

Even a seemingly innocuous query on basic science can be deemed too sensitive because it may open the way for discussion that strays into commercially sensitive or politically problematic territory.

This doesn’t need to be the case. Scientific institutions can have confidence in their scientists to communicate their basic science and to stay on message.

This is not a utopian goal. Scientists simply need to have clearly stated communication protocols and the support and necessary training to effectively engage with the media. But more fundamentally, they need to believe that their managers actually buy into science communication efforts and are willing to accommodate their media engagement activities.

We have the opportunity to address many of the issues Hendy has raised.

Platform for change

The Royal Society of New Zealand’s Researcher Guidelines for Public Engagement will soon be finalised and will offer useful advice experts can follow when engaging with the public, be it via the mainstream media, social media or in front of a town hall meeting.

But the guidelines won’t work in isolation. They need to be accompanied by efforts in research institutions to align internal communications protocols with the guidelines and make sure everyone understands them.

The Government’s A Nation of Curious Minds work stream, of which the Science Media Centre is but one project, offers numerous opportunities for and encouragement of scientists to engage the public.

The National Strategic Plan for Science in Society, which underpins Curious Minds, has the stated goal:

“Ensure emerging and established scientists and technology researchers have the basic communication skills to make their research accessible to relevant audiences beyond their peer community.”

Reaching those audiences still relies to a large extent on working with the mainstream media. As my colleague Fiona Fox, the founder of the UK Science Media Centre has so often said and which Hendy quotes in his book: “the media will do science better when science does the media better”.

Most institutions would argue that they are doing what is outlined in the Government’s strategy. But some need to do better. Too many experts aren’t confident talking to the media and feel that stepping into the public arena on controversial issues is a losing game.

They need greater support from above, which along with appropriate training will give them the confidence to navigate those commercial and political issues while satisfying the public’s thirst for information.

Scientists enjoy a high level of trust in New Zealand. The key to maintaining that trust as we face a growing range of complex science-related issues, is timely and ongoing engagement with the public from a multitude of experts that feel empowered to communicate.

The Science Media Centre runs the Science Media SAVVY media training programme with events held all over the country. Contact the SMC to enquire about holding a workshop in your region.


  1. Richard Bedford

    Ensuring the public is informed by reliable evidence-based information, especially in times of crisis, is a serious issue and one that deserves our attention. Professor Hendy provides us with many interesting insights into the challenges of science communication in the context of rapidly changing circumstances.
    Many of his observations about science communication are very relevant for members of the Royal Society of New Zealand, especially as the Society is in the process of finalising some guidelines for researchers when engaging with the public, which Peter refers to here. Professor Hendy contributed to the consultation process associated with these guidelines which he mentions in places in his book.
    While we appreciate many of Professor Hendy’s insights we have some concerns about the reliability of some of his comments about the Society. Some extracts from the concluding chapter of the book had been released to the media late the week before the book was published. These extracts have formed the basis of much of the commentary on radio, in the newspapers and on the blogosphere that appeared between 7 and 12 May.
    In my view, two of these extracts are misleading given the way they have been worded and framed. If you want to find out more, please see my full piece on the Royal Society of New Zealand’s website.

  2. Peter Griffin

    @Ursula When engaging with the media, there’s always some risk that you’ll be misquoted or quoted out of context. But there are things you can do to mitigate that risk – build trusting relationships with key journalists, offer to have them read back quotes or check technical information (note: this does not mean asking them to see the story in full before it is published!), making sure you contact the journalist and/or media outlet editor if you have been misquoted so the online version can be corrected ASAP.

    Our SAVVY courses are heavily subsidised by MBIE, so the $595 per person for the 2-day course is very cheap and we offer several scholarships to get early career researchers there. But numbers are limited. We are getting about 60 – 70 people through the 2-day courses each year and would like to expand this and see other initiatives from the sector increase the overall opportunities for training and access to resources.

    For media specific assistance, a good start is our Desk Guide for Scientists: Working with Media. Happy to mail out physical copies for free too.

  3. Ursula Rack

    I struggle a bit with the article and is clearly to see which purpose it should serve; and I can agree on the comments from Bruce Hamilton.
    Scientist would like to talk about their science, but often there is a sort of shyness. I know scientists they gave interviews and parts of it were taken for a different event and completely out of context what made the expert a fool. Of course that makes researcher thinking twice to give another interview. Now it starts the art of saying something but nothing specific that it cannot misused.
    A media training helps not for all interviews. We are used to give short answers in modern media and often it is un-reflected and shallow. There is little space and time to really explain a problem. I am not talking about hours of explanation, but it is interesting what is taken out of statements to fit to a certain style of program/interview/media.
    It is also hard to get into the media training advertised above. It is expensive and only few places are available. Even when one is interested to learn tools to give and survive an interview there is little chance to get into the course (my own experience).

  4. Bruce Hamilton

    The problem I have is not whether the scientist has media training, but the failure of media to identify and utilise experts from elsewhere, especially offshore. Many incidents are not unique to NZ, and there are globally-recognised eminent scientists in most disciplines who will comment on the general scientific environment an incident occurs within. Prudent experts will not comment on specific incidents, because they don’t usually have enough detail.

    Often, NZ media goes to a scientist who, at best, is on the peripheral of an issue. I can’t speak for others but, in my area of expertise, incidents that acquire media scrutiny usually have very little detail about potential root causes immediately available to curious outsiders. Consequently, any comment could explode on the expert when more information is subsequently disclosed. Hence cautious scientists will steer clear of offering comment. Media training will not help.

    The SMC “experts comment” sections can be entertaining reading, and similar media commentary on topical issues may partially explain the increasing cynicism about experts, as demonstrated by John Key’s comment about finding another expert with an opposing view.

    The interests of the regulator and the company where the incident occurs will often coincide, even in the unlikely event the regulator staff are specialists in the science surrounding the incident. Consequently, regulators may choose to wait until much more information is provided, or seek independent advice, possibly from off-shore. Regulators may be able to extract more information from companies, but political considerations may also influence their actions.

    Given the increasing diversity and specialisation of science, the chance of finding multiple NZ experts available is low. It’s natural for affected companies to immediately recruit any local experts to help them understand/remedy/control the incident. By hiring that expert, they must also have control over confidential information provided. I see little merit in training scientists in media skills, when the relevant management and communication departments of the employer are responsible for managing media interaction.

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