Scientific freedom - an interview with Nicola Gaston

It’s clear from the issues raised in Dirty Politics that New Zealand’s democratic integrity is devalued and under attack. But what does that mean in practice? 
One example is the treatment of our independent experts (researchers, scientists and academics) whose role it is to ensure debate on matters of public interest is rigorous, and informed by the latest evidence and research. Instead, an environment of fear based on the threat of withdrawal of funding is rampant in both the community and NGO sector [1] and now research shows 40% of the scientists surveyed feel ‘gagged’ by fears of embarrassing the Government and having their funding cut. [2] Many who had not felt gagged themselves said they had witnessed it happening to others.
What this all adds up to is a silencing of voices challenging this Government and a void where informed, intelligent debate on matters of public interest should be.  If our academics, researchers, scientists and community leaders are not speaking out for fear of losing funding, and our public servants are facing increasingly hostile working environments in which there is decreasing tolerance for free and frank advice that challenges the Government’s position, then it’s up to us to speak up.

Today we’re uncovering more of what’s really happening by interviewing Nicola Gaston of the NZ Association of Scientists about the research she’s been part of, and the overall environment for science in New Zealand in the wake of dirty politics.


Hi Nicola, thanks so much for letting us interview you for our democracy blog. Can you tell us what you do?

The NZ Association of Scientists is an Association that exists to advocate for science and scientists. We have members across New Zealand, in both the Universities and the Crown Research Institutes, such as The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS). A few of our key goals are to promote the public discussion of science, to encourage the wide application of science, and to defend scientific fact, promote intellectual freedom and encourage scientific excellence. Perhaps the most important thing that we do is to represent the voices of scientists. We recently surveyed scientists in NZ on the National Science Challenges at the request of our members, looking to represent their views in light of comments by the Minister that he had heard no criticism of the government initiative.

What inspired you to do this?

We had been asked to run the survey on the National Science Challenges by Crown Research Scientists who had been told that they could not speak publicly on the matter within months of an election (it appears to follow on from the expectations on public servants, despite the fact that CRI - Crown Research Institute - scientists are employees of Crown owned businesses, and are not public servants). This was discussed by the NZAS and the suggestion was made that the CRI boards could be asked to sign up to the RSNZ code of ethics, in order to support scientists who voice unpopular or unpalatable opinions that are nonetheless supported by the science. We included this idea in our submission on the National Statement of Science Investment.

The proposed ‘Code of Public Engagement’ was little more than a footnote in a Ministry document summarizing their Science in Society project, ‘A Nation of Curious Minds’. However, that project was led by the Chief Science Adviser to the PM, Sir Peter Gluckman, and when asked, he made comments about scientists saying things that they shouldn’t, and ‘advocating’, and made statements that generally supported concerns that the proposed Code would aim to set boundaries on what scientists can and cannot say.

Therefore, we decided to ask scientists firstly, what they felt about the proposed Code, and secondly, what experience they had talking about their science in public, in order to put their responses in some context.

What sort of political environment do you think best supports the work you do?

I’ll answer this one from the point of view of science in NZ as a whole, I think, and from that point of view: Science works best when research projects do not presuppose a particular outcome.  

There’s enough research around about implicit bias, that we should all understand that we do bring our particular preconceptions to any research project, and therefore science cannot be bias free.  However, if we view science as a collective enterprise, we can aspire to scientific knowledge being advanced by people who bring to it a diverse range of viewpoints, and a diversity of skills.  Over time, we can hope that the biases are evened out, based on a scientific culture of self-correction and honest criticism.

So the work that we do – especially the science which is most useful for policy development, in health, environmental and hazards research, etc – is clearly susceptible to political pressures and biases. But a culture in which scientists are able to speak freely – and in which scientific debate in the media can be dealt with in a mature fashion, that deals with uncertainty well – is an important counterweight to those pressures.

Do you feel like the integrity of your work is under threat? If so, how?
Yes. The comments that we have received make a clear case around the pressures that exist in public good science where the outcomes of research have political or commercial implications. But to some extent, all research is affected by the availability of funding, and prescriptive funding processes which require commercial outputs bias the focus of our science system as a whole. It isn’t about the biases of individual scientists, but that the system is making it easier to get some kinds of scientific data than others. And this is particularly clear, when giving scientific advice to a commercial client is business as usual, but the provision of scientific advice to an NGO is seen as politically risky (and therefore commercially risky, to a CRI).

This is not just an issue in New Zealand: the current issue in the US where scientists are prevented from advising the Environmental Protection Agency on their own areas of expertise, due to concerns that scientists are 'advocating' inappropriately, is an extreme outcome from the same kind of conversation that we are currently having. [3]

What do you think about the research on whether scientists feel gagged in their work?

We are glad we did it. We make no claims about the representativeness of what was a simple poll. But we know that a significant number of scientists cared enough to respond to the poll, and that their experiences and concerns are, to a large extent, consistent. It is perhaps surprising that many of the concerns are shared by both University and CRI scientists – this indicates, perhaps, the extent to which the problem is a cultural one.

How do you feel the broader issue of dirty politics relates to scientists?

That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, I think scientists feel that their work is a long way away from the politics, and in general, they are happy for politicians to weigh up policies, taking the science into account, but also looking to public sentiments and funding priorities.  What has been interesting is to see the reaction of scientists to the misuse of science and data in politics.

The original treatment of Mike Joy by the Herald, and the comment by our Prime Minister that he could find another scientist to tell him what he wanted to hear, was concerning enough. But the revelations in dirty politics go a step further. The attacks on Lisa Te Morenga, a nutrition researcher, post-publication of Dirty Politics, and the continuing references by Whale Oil and his ilk to ‘troughers’ – implying that scientists are not to be trusted because they are paid from the public purse – this is symptomatic of something much more serious. Many of our CRIs – ESR, GNS, Landcare and NIWA are easy to cite – do significant amounts of public good research, into issues of health, the environment, and natural hazards.

While the CRIs are supported by significant amounts of commercial work, their purpose for existing (and rationale for ownership by the crown) must be the provision of public good research that would not otherwise be undertaken (e.g on commercial grounds). Most NZers have a great deal of interest in the work undertaken in the CRIs, but if they are not aware of the work that is being done – because of either explicit or implicit encouragement of CRI scientists from speaking publicly – then that may not be good news for the future of the CRIs.

However, university scientists report similar concerns  about speaking out in public, against political or more senior scientific positions. CRI and university scientists have much more in common than not, given the general dependence of these institutions on public funding of both science, and of education.  Even education specific funds (PBRF, and Centre of Research Excellence funds) have increased their emphasis on commercialisable research in the last couple of years. This shifts the balance of research activity and will have long-term consequences in our education and R&D sectors.

What do you think could be done to improve things?
  1. Our politicians could help a lot by showing respect for scientists, and for data.
  2. The CRIs could sign up to the current RSNZ Code of Ethics, to counter the perception that CRI scientists are under particular political pressure.
  3. The RSNZ Code of Ethics could be modified to mention implicit or unconscious bias, to avoid perpetuating the myth that individual scientists are themselves less biased than average people.
  4. The proposed Code of Public Engagement could become instead a set of guidelines for scientists speaking in public, that points to the current Code of Ethics, and also to useful sources of support, such as our Science Media Centre, that provides training and advice.
  5. Probably the biggest thing that matters, is for there to be public awareness of the situation that scientists are in in dealing with policy matters, and encouragement for scientists to speak out, even if that means that they sometime get it wrong. Good science depends on scientists being willing to test hypotheses that will sometimes be wrong; good science communication includes the possibility that scientists sometimes say things that are wrong. It is more important to have honest and open discussion, than to always be right.


Nicola has also given us permission to publish anonymous comments from scientists who took part in the NZAS research. Here are some stand outs:

“When I was in a Crown Research Institute, I had funding moved from me to another scientist after a visit from industry who were upset at the factual comments put out in a newspaper article by a scientist working in my research project.”
“Have been advised on occasion that it would be preferable not to draw attention to some of my research that is counter to government policy”
“I worked out with my manager and an acting CEO that it would be appropriate to represent an environmental NGO in giving evidence to a government regulatory body that would effectively have been public (and probably newsworthy) to ensure this NGO had access to some expert testimony on a high profile issue. The CEO returned from leave and quashed this testimony, to avoid having the CRI associated with the NGO.”
“I have been fearful of making controversial public comment for fear it would jeopardise funding, which would result in job loss for others in my team, even if not for me.”

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