Professor Hendy raises questions for scientists about the disservice done by their silence

Professor’s Shaun Hendy’s just-published “Silencing Science” (Bridget Williams Books, $15) has been widely discussed in the science community in the past week. According to the Spinoff Review of Books, which describes it as “a slim book of essays on the social and moral responsibilities of scientists, it was the sixth-best seller at Wellington’s Unity Books.

Professor Hendy essentially says many scientists in New Zealand are being constrained from sharing their expertise and speaking about many topics of public importance.

Peter Griffin, at Sciblogs, says the book highlights some recent examples of where scientists have been missing in action when the public needed their knowledge and insights the most.

“I 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.”

People with the expertise and the media training to handle media queries were either instructed not to speak to the media or opted out so as not to upset their management or funders.

Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, is among those to have commented on the book.

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, he agrees.

And many of Professor Hendy’s observations about science communication are very relevant for members of the Royal Society of New Zealand, especially as it finalises some guidelines for researchers when engaging with the public.  Professor Hendy contributed to the consultation process associated with these guidelines.

But Professor Bedford challenges some of Professor’s observations about the Society’s independence:

“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.  As the Society’s President I decided I would not respond to specific questions about these entries until I had read the book and had a chance to clarify some issues relating to the statements with Professor Hendy.”

Now that he has done both those things he has responded to some of Professor Hendy’s references to the Society.  He says several of these references relate to events which Professor Hendy considers demonstrate a lack of independence “of our country’s peak science body” (p. 14) from Government influence and direction.  This is despite the Society having its own Act of Parliament and not being required to answer to Government.

Professor Bedford says:

“We are independent.  Like many organisations (including Professor Hendy’s Centre of Research Excellence, Te Pūnaha Matatini), we receive funding from Government for services we provide under contract.  None of those contracts prevent the Society from speaking out on issues.

“The two specific references to the Society that Professor Hendy makes, and that have attracted most attention in the media commentary to date, are cited below. Both of these statements contain inferences and allegations that need to be challenged and corrected.

“During my time on the [New Zealand Association of Scientists] council, I dealt with two situations in which scientific misconduct by a New Zealand research organization was alleged.  Both cases were referred to the association by the Royal Society of New Zealand. … The Society, in recent times at least, has not seen itself as a body that is able to deal with such matters, particularly when it anticipates the potential political fall out that might arise.  This is in part because the Royal Society depends on government contracts to run its operations, so quite consciously avoids public criticism of government policy” (pp. 107-108).

“From time to time [RSNZ] convenes panels to advise on policy.  These panels do valuable work, but they typically operate in Pieke’s ‘science arbiter’ framework, summarizing evidence for and against particular policy options.  Panels also exist at the whim of the government of the day.  I served on a panel from mid-2014 to 2015, but it was shut down at the request of government before it could report.” (p. 108).

With regard to the referral of situations relating to scientific misconduct by a New Zealand research organisation to the New Zealand Association of Scientists, there were no formal referrals by the Society, says Professor Bedford.

But Professor Hendy is correct in saying the Society cannot deal formally with cases of misconduct under its current operating rules and practices unless one or both of the parties are Society members.

“When a member of the Society’s management staff is approached by non-members on particular issues there may be some suggestions given as to where the person might seek further advice.  The New Zealand Association of Scientists might well be an organisation that is mentioned as a possible source of such advice.  But this hardly constitutes referral to the association by the Society and certainly does not reflect on its independence from government.  It is simply a reflection of the reality that we do not have jurisdiction to deal with such matters.

“The Society is quite prepared to deal with disciplinary matters where these relate to its functions and members.  We do this independent of any extraneous considerations, as our disputes resolution policy makes clear.”

More problematic than the way referrals are referenced, , Professor Bedford says,  is the statement that “because the Royal Society depends on government contracts to run its operations, [it] quite consciously avoids public criticism of government policy”.

He elaborates:

“The Society does receive Government funding for a range of services it provides.  This funding also supports some of the Society’s expert advice work (see below) but this in no way affects the ability of the Society to comment on issues it considers are important, any more than the receipt of Government funding for Te Pūnaha Matatini affects Professor Hendy’s ability to comment on issues he and his staff see are important.  Indeed, we take considerable pride in the integrity and quality of the reports that we produce.

“This brings us to the issue of Society’s expert advice panels, some of which Professor Hendy states exist ‘at the whim of the government of the day’.  This is quite incorrect.

“The government does not direct our expert advice activity.  Where there is an issue that a government agency might want us to consider as part of our expert advice programme we will consider this in the same way we consider suggestions from our Fellows, our Constituent Organisations, or any other source that wishes to have an independent assessment of relevant evidence.”

With reference to the Society’s expert advice panels, Professor Hendy says he served on a panel from mid-2014 to 2015, “but it was shut down at the request of government before it could report.”

This is not true, says Professor Bedford.

The panel on the research system that Professor Hendy was part of provided feedback on the draft National Statement on Science Investment (NSSI) in 2014.  In 2015, following publication of the NSSI and a special edition of the Royal Society’s journal dealing with research system issues, the Council decided that a more appropriate pathway for the ongoing work by panel members was via an ad hoc project aimed at informing the Society’s 150th anniversary in 2017. The panel chair, Professor Peter Hunter, was invited to consider this.”

Professor Hendy’s references to the Society and its independence will be addressed in a more general context on a later occasion, Professor Bedford says.

Katherine Rich, chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, has challenged Professor Hendy on some matters, too.

She has focused on one example Professor Hendy has cited to support his proposition that scientists are being silenced. It’s the case of the Government’s controversial decision to not fortify bread with folic acid, a decision strongly supported by Rich’s organisation and an issue subjected to fierce lobbying. 

Ms Rich sets out her council’s role and her request for a literature review on the science relating to folic acid consumption by two overseas professors. She concludes:

As a key anecdote in Silencing Science, it’s a poor one because the folic acid discussion was brimming with scientists and medics passionate about the topic being decidedly

Professor Hendy will precis his book and answer questions in the Pat Hanan Room, 501 Arts 2 (building 207) at Auckland University on May 27.

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