proposal that could see RNZ's award-winning science programme Our
Changing World axed has drawn worry and protest from
the scientific community.
is consulting on a proposal which the Herald understands
involves reviewing spoken features and drama to reduce costs and
of the affected programmes is understood to be Our
Changing World, a weekly programme providing in-depth
coverage of science and environment issues, and presented by
respected science broadcasters Veronika Meduna and Alison Balance.
afternoon, the New Zealand Association of Scientists released a
statement airing its concern.
format allows for in-depth exploration of topics and even allows for
scrutiny of scientific thinking, a behind-the-scenes intro into what
it is like to work in the world of science," said the
association's past-president, Associate Professor Nicola Gaston.
it focuses a good deal of the time on New Zealand science and
programme aligned well with the Government's "current and
laudable" push to improve society's science literacy, she said,
noting that the very first point of RNZ's charter stated it would
provide programming contributing toward "intellectual,
scientific, cultural, .... development".
the association acknowledged there was a need to periodically
reinvigorate content, it was concerned RNZ's plan would see a
significant reduction in on-air science content.
all means, we expect RNZ to question and re-think science
programming, but we need to create more New Zealand science content,
not less," Professor Gaston said.
Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said the prospect of axing or
drastically curtailing the scope of Our Changing World raised
Changing World has achieved widespread recognition for its excellence
and objectivity in bringing the world of natural things to life,"
said Mr Taylor, who had spoken with RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson
about the review.
staff are superb communicators and the program contributes positively
to RNZ's reputation as a serious media outlet."
Taylor said the EDS recognised the media world was in a state of flux
and RNZ needed to adapt.
it would counsel Mr Thompson "to avoid doing a Weldon" - a
reference to former MediaWorks chief executive Mark Weldon - "and
implement careless cuts and lose talent", he said.
Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, this
afternoon said he had only recently learned of the proposal.
the programme was facing closure, he would arrange to meet with RNZ
to "discuss the importance of its contribution to science
radio is a very important medium for science communication and
particularly, Our Changing World allows for in-depth science stories
which are critical ... to improving the quality of interaction
between science and society in New Zealand."
The Herald understands
that many other scientists and scientific bodies are dismayed about
the proposal, among them the New Zealand Science Media Centre, which
has written to Mr Thompson encouraging a continued focus on science.
spokesperson John Barr said no decisions had been made about the
impact of the review on particular programmes or individual staff.
is clear is that RNZ is committed to producing unique and in-depth
features content and we have identified science and technology as a
likely area of focus under the proposal," he said.
new strategy would see RNZ producing specialist in-depth material for
both podcasting and on-air broadcast.
from across the organisation, as well as outside contributors, would
be involved in making that high-quality content, he said.
first step under the proposal is to recruit for the new position of
executive producer and this person will build and select his/her team
and implement the strategy."
Barr said the Environmental Defence Society was correct in pointing
out all media outlets were wrestling with changing audience behaviour
and with cost constraints.
is confronting those challenges in manner that will enhance our
ability to deliver on the RNZ Charter," he said.
are committed to operating more efficiently than at present and RNZ
is reducing costs and staffing across its operations as we deal tight
budgets and the need to invest in new areas of activity."
review comes follows a series of big changes at the national
broadcaster, including the departures of veteran newsreaders Hewitt
Humphrey, Warwick Burke and Catriona McLeod, and the shift of Nights
presenter Bryan Crump to late-night newsreader.
understood a wider restucturing plan includes the dis-establishment
of 20 jobs and the creation of seven new digital roles.
scientist talks about Silencing Science
of New Zealand's most prominent scientists, and the winner of the
Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize, says too many
scientists feel constrained in speaking publicly. Professor Shaun
Hendy talks to science reporter Jamie Morton before the release of
his book, Silencing Science.
I was president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, I was
involved in several issues where science was being silenced. Sadly,
I've now found many more examples.
Almost all the
journalists I talk to have anecdotes of times when they have been
unable to get comment from scientists.
Some have now lost trust
in our science organisations.
This is a really sad
state of affairs
I want this book to be a
wake-up call for the science community and our research organisations
- we need to take our responsibilities to the public more seriously.
You seem to have picked up the science communication baton from your
late mentor, Sir Paul Callaghan. Why did it become important for you?
inspired many of those active in science communication today, and as
a result, the community of scientists interested in public engagement
is much more diverse than it was in Paul's heyday.
I've always enjoyed
talking about science, to my colleagues and the public, and Paul
encouraged me to take it seriously.
He was very clear about
the social contract that exists between scientists and society; the
public funds most of our work, so the public should know and have a
say about what it is getting for this funding.
Presently, what would you suspect most scientists feel about speaking
out about their work? Do they actually want to?
think most scientists do realise the importance of talking about
their work, and a lot do want to contribute to public awareness, but
it terrifies many of us.
I was certainly very
nervous when I first started blogging and talking to journalists;
what would my colleagues think if I made a mistake or was
During the Canterbury
earthquakes, seismologists worried enormously about the consequences
of what they were saying.
Overstate the risks and
the insurance industry might collapse; understate the risks and
people might be killed.
What confines or hampers them from doing so? Are they being "gagged"
as it were? And have these barriers become worse?
the book, I write about what happened during the Fonterra botulism
Almost all the country's
experts in foodborne illness either had commercial relationships with
Fonterra and didn't want to put those in jeopardy, or were advising
the government and not allowed to talk to the media.
One scientist said they
had been "muzzled".
Unfortunately, this sort
of situation is all too common.
Although the public owns
the Crown Research Institutes, these are increasingly under pressure
to find private funding, and as a result many have very strict media
policies -- much like the rules you would find in private companies
-- that actively filter what scientists can say to journalists.
This is not to say that
publicly employed scientists shouldn't work with the private sector,
but in a science community that is as thinly spread as New Zealand's
it can mean that in times of crisis we simply run out of experts who
are free speak.
Are there political or policy pressures?
This came up several times when I interviewed people for the book.
Scientists will be told
to "not embarrass the minister", particularly those in
Crown Research Institutes, but this also happens in universities.
watch the Government's budget announcements every year, and many
worry that speaking out or challenging government policy will put
science funding at risk.
After the science
community challenged Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce
publicly about the axing of post-doctoral fellowships for young
scientists, he simply shelved the issue.
Last year, Joyce's
ministry, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, removed
all reference to post-doctoral fellowships from its major policy
document, the National Statement of Science Investment, despite a
strong consensus among scientists that something needs to be done.
The message this sends is
that if you speak out, you'll be punished.
How confident are you in the media as a conduit?
have some outstanding science journalists in New Zealand, and the
Science Media Centre in Wellington has been able to make science much
more accessible to journalists over the past few years.
However, the changing
media landscape means there are fewer specialist science journalists
working today, and those who are still hanging in there are stretched
We've also lost many
investigative reporters and a lot of capability in current affairs
I've heard that Radio New
Zealand might cut Our Changing World, the only dedicated science
broadcast show in New Zealand.
implications of this worry me.
Have there been disasters where scientists have been misrepresented
in the press?
does happen, although in the cases I examine in Silencing
the major problems arose when the press couldn't find experts to talk
Sometimes the science
ends up being filtered through officials or corporate spokespeople
who don't have a deep understanding of what they are saying. Gary
Romano got the science spectacularly wrong on Campbell Live during
the Fonterra scare, and before the l'Aquila earthquake, a local
official misrepresented the science in order to avoid worrying the
public, when they could have taken steps to protect themselves.
In cases like these, the
media need to insist on talking to directly experts.
Conversely, how has an absence of good science communication been
disastrous in situations? Can you cite some examples where, say, a
vacuum has been filled with perhaps less informed but actually
2014 there was an outbreak of Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, a
foodborne illness that can be caught from uncooked vegetables.
The Ministry of Primary
Industries (MPI) and ESR, the Crown Research Institute that was
investigating the cause for MPI, were both very tight-lipped. Neither
organisation allowed their scientists to front to the public and
explain their findings.
Instead, Canterbury DHB
Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey went public after he read
ESR's preliminary report.
The end result is that
MPI and ESR looked like they were hiding their findings from the
public in order to protect businesses that had sold potentially
During the Fonterra
scare, all sorts of speculation filled the vacuum left by the muzzled
One article claimed that
the botulism was due to the use of glyphosate (a weedkiller) on
Luckily Dr Siouxsie
Wiles, who is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland,
although not a specialist in foodborne illness, was able to debunk
this in her blog, Infectious Thoughts.
She was also the
scientist who pointed out that Gary Romano had got the science wrong
on Campbell Live.
Unfortunately Wiles has
been criticised by colleagues in the science community for speaking
out on topics beyond her specialist expertise.
In many areas - from climate scepticism to more cynical attacks on
health researchers - we are seeing scientists being publicly
challenged or targeted by people outside the scientific community,
often with bias or vested interests. How can scientists hope to fight
have to become more media savvy so that their messages are more
effective, and more scientists need to speak out, so that individuals
are less vulnerable to personal attacks.
When there are only one
or two scientists talking, it is much easier to paint their views as
extreme, or just one side of a scientific debate, than when there is
a chorus of scientists speaking out.
What potential do you see in social media as a direct bridge to the
media makes science far more accessible to the public.
You can now hear from
scientists in the lab as they do their work or follow them as they
discuss their findings with their colleagues.
You can get a much better
feel for how science works and how scientists think.
Social media is also
You can see the thoughts
and ideas of PhD students as they learn their trade, alongside those
of the professors and senior scientists, who have traditionally had
the dominant voice in the media.
In your book, you suggest a new parliamentary body to represent
see a gap between the advice that Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime
Minister's Chief Science Adviser, offers to government, and the
advice that the Royal Society of New Zealand develops with government
Neither Sir Peter nor the
Royal Society is sufficiently independent of the government to
challenge policies that are not supported by the science.
For example, I was on a
Royal Society expert advisory panel last year that was dissolved
after the Government decided it didn't want to hear the advice being
I believe we need an
independent body, a Commission for Science, responsible to Parliament
rather than the government of the day, so it can provide advice to
the public on science.
Commission for Science could also deal with scientific
During my time as
president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, we had to
deal with a number of cases of alleged misconduct by research
Several of these were
referred to us by the Royal Society, because the association is
independent and less vulnerable to political pressure.
association is not really resourced to deal with these situations,
some of which really required deeper investigation than we could
A leaked internal email
from Niwa also revealed attempts by that organisation to undermine
the association's membership base after it expressed concerns that
commercial conflicts were undermining trust in science.
A commission with powers
to investigate would increase transparency in our science system and
rebuild public trust in the science community.
Lastly, which New Zealand scientists do you feel are pioneering
science communication - and what hope do you have for the future?
scientists whose communication skills I most admire are Siouxsie
Wiles and Michelle Dickinson.
Both have mastered all
forms of media, including traditional (TV, radio and print) and
social media, including Twitter and blogging.
They are making science
accessible to a wide variety of people, particularly children.
On top of their work in
science communication, they both teach at the University of Auckland
and lead active research groups.
Traditionally, it is
research and teaching that have been important for career advancement
in universities - my hope for the future is that communication
becomes another plank on which academics can build their career.
SCIENTISTS NOT BEING 'SILENCED'
Science and Innovation
Minister Steven Joyce disagreed scientists were being muzzled.
Generally, Mr Joyce said
he was not aware of any barriers stopping scientists from
universities have that very explicit role as critic and conscience of
society and that's being maintained," he said.
"And in terms of
CRIs [Crown Research Institutes], and universities, the only
potential issue is when they are doing contract research or research
on behalf of a particular organisation.
"And that's subject
normally to particularly policies that those institutions have and
which are all set up individually - it's not something that the
Government gets involved in.
"But in general
terms, you'd have to say New Zealand has a very robust scientific
communication environment; there are lots of issues that scientists
speak on, as they should, and they get the opportunity to do so."
Bedford, president of the Royal Society of New Zealand, acknowledged
there were occasions when scientists felt constrained and those
situations had to be dealt with appropriately, with the public
interest at the forefront.
"It is especially
important to provide evidence based information so public and
governments alike can make good decisions."
The society had recently
consulted with the research community on a set of draft guidelines to
assist engagement between researchers and the public. "Most of
the discussions were around how to encourage engagement, and only a
few comments were raised about constraints," he said.
"Overall, we have
received much useful feedback, which is currently being incorporated
into a new draft of the guidelines that will be published in the near
Sir Peter said he
believed there was no "constitutional restraint" on
scientists speaking publicly.
"I mean, CRI
scientists are employees, which as in other parts of the world, does
create some constraint.
"But I've worked
with the CRI boards to say, given that the large number of CRI
scientists are doing some good work, they must be opened up to
comment on those matters."
Sir Peter said CRIs were
"getting far better" at communicating their science.
"So no, I don't
think there's any constitutional constraint. On the opposite, I think
what's been happening is the Government, through what we are seeing
with the Royal Society and through [science outreach initiative] A
Nation of Curious Minds, is trying to encourage scientists to talk to
Mr Joyce also disagreed
that a new independent parliamentary body representing science was
warranted, saying this was what the political process was for.
"There is never
going to be a system where politics is subsumed, in these more
politically controversial areas, to just a group of scientists having
a strong view.
"Because we have a
political process and that's democracy," Mr Joyce said.
"So, in my view, I
don't think there's a need to keep adding additional arbiters simply
because [Professor Hendy] is not getting the answers he wants.
"Most people would
say that just because a group of scientists want something to happen,
doesn't necessarily mean it should happen: it's still subject to the
Sir Peter noted New
Zealand already had a science advisory system that was a mix of
internal and external bodies.
Parliament was already
served by researchers from the Parliamentary Library.
Outside of Government,
there were groups including the New Zealand Association of Scientists
and the Royal Society, which he argued were "fiercely
His own role, Sir Peter
said, was also independent - he had been openly critical of the
Government in some cases in the past and he was free to speak to
opposition MPs - but was largely focused around providing evidence to
policy, "rather than policy for science".
policy and society is a three-way thing: science does not make
policy, and in fact the worst thing we can do as scientists is
exhibit hubris and think we know what policy-making is all about."