The need for more scientists to be heard in public, not fewer, has been spotlighted by the row over Jacqueline Rowarth’s remarks about the Waikato River being one of the world’s five cleanest reveals, says Shaun Hendy.
Dr Rowarth has just taken up her post as chief scientist at the Environmental Protection Authority.
At a Primary Land Users Group meeting on October 3, she said the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest in the world, based on the OECD data she was using.
The New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society said the claims were false and were based on outdated data and factual errors. Her analysis was based on OECD river nitrate data from 2002-2004, the society said, whereas the most up-to-date (for 2011) showed the Waikato had dropping from its 5 per cent ranking in 2002-2004 to a 24 per cent ranking.
A Dunedin environmental contractor and Green Party supporter, Matt Thomson, has followed up by launching a petition demanding Dr Rowarth be removed from her position. His reason, reportedly, was mainly to “rark things up” and he was not sure what he would do if the petition gained traction.
But Dr Rowarth had been appointed to a new job at the EPA although “she was already sympathetic to the farming industry”.
Shaun Hendy, director of the Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence, and a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, has set out his thoughts in an article for Spinoff.
When more than 5,000 people became sick thanks to the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply in August, science experts “made themselves rather scarce”, he writes..
When Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair, Fenton Wilson, was asked by Radio New Zealand about his Council’s reports concerning the woefully unhealthy state of the nearby Tukituki river, he said “I don’t have any of that information to hand.” When it was put to him that recent flooding may have driven contaminated water into one of the town’s aquifers, Wilson speculated that “speculation is not helpful at this time”.
Did we really not have any scientists who could speak knowledgably on whether contaminated surface water could have gotten into Havelock North’s groundwater?
Remarkably, science confirms that remnant populations of such scientists do still reside in New Zealand. They work for the government, and as I wrote in Silencing Science earlier this year, they are the sorts of experts we almost never hear from.
Dr Rowarth, previously a professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato, has been employed by the EPA to use her “expertise to explain our science, so people can have trust and confidence in the decisions we make”, according to EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.
Professor Hendy comments:
This may have sounded like a good plan at the time, but Rowarth’s stance on water quality has had other experts increasingly alarmed.
New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Marc Schallenberg said that Rowarth’s “comments concerning the condition of the Waikato River are not only false, but distract from the important work being done to improve water quality in New Zealand”.
Bryce Cooper, a water quality expert at NIWA, said, “Water quality in its [the Waikato River’s] lower reaches ranks in the bottom half of 500 sites nationally for key indicators such as nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli (a measure of faecal contamination) and water clarity.”
If you are predisposed to think that the science of tides was fabricated 400 years ago in preparation for Project Fear, then you may also be tempted to dismiss these water quality experts as having a vested interest in spreading alarm in order to keep themselves employed.
But if you actually want to be better informed about our rivers, you do need to hear from scientists like Cooper and Schallenberg – and, yes, Rowarth too. Because this is how science works. Scientists make claims, present their evidence, and wait for the judgement of their peers.
Better that we know how Rowarth views the evidence than not. Now those views are in the open, they can be scrutinised and critiqued.
Professor Hendy noted that when Dr Rowarth was asked to comment on her views by Radio New Zealand, the EPA replied, saying, “it would be inappropriate for her to comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role.”
In Silencing Science he complained that the last thing a government scientist is allowed to do is speak about matters actually affecting the public.
But (as he muses) who needs an expert when helpful prime ministers can always find you another with a different point of view?