The sacking of NIWA scientist Jim Salinger has been getting wide coverage in New Zealand (see Niwa sacks Jim Salinger; Niwa sacks top scientist; Niwa sacks top scientist; and Face of NIWA sacked for talking to media). It was also noticed overseas (see eg., Permission to Speak, Sir?! Top NZ climate scientist is fired, for not asking!; Top New Zealand climate scientist sacked for talking to media; and Pharyngula: News from the other side of the world).
See also Hot Topic, Sound of silence, for a local comment on the sacking.
All round, it makes New Zealand’s Crown research Institutes look silly and bureaucratic.
I hope the employment court can resolve this “employment dispute” in the interests of good science in this country.
However, I think this case does demonstrate a real problem faced by scientists working in New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes – and probably similar institutes and corporations worldwide. That is controls on the ability of scientists to communicate their findings. And to communicate with the public – who after all are the final “consumers” of the science and fund their research.
Science communication urgent
This is relevant because there has never been more urgency for such communication. Science and technology are intimately involved in today’s economies and societies. Responsible democratic activity today requires an improvement in the scientific literacy of the population. And scientists must communicate with the public to help fight the promotion anti-science attitudes. This promotion often has big financial backing and is actively encouraged by some of our social institutions (e.g., a section of the religious establishment). Restriction on the ability of scientists to communicate often gives these people a free reign.
Wouldn’t it be nice of many New Zealand scientists had blogs similar to those of PZ Myers (Pharyngula) and Jerry Coyne ( Why evolution is true). But just imagine how the bureaucrats in the Crown Research Institutes would react to this. Every post would require prior bureaucratic approval by “communication officers.” Many would not be allowed.
And let’s face it, these “communication officers” would step in and order the blogs be closed down. And they would have the support of the institute’s managers and board who are terrified of public reaction and legal pressures. The last thing they are concerned about is the true communication of science.
Political and legal pressures
In my own time I experienced a complaint to my institute about news report of a statement of mine made as a member of a peace group (The complainant was the local National Member of Parliament and my director was left rather confused about the whole issue). Our research group was several times ordered not to publish, or make public statements about, our research findings on the efficacy of a fertiliser (our institute was threatened with legal action by a supplier). Eight years ago our “communication officer” ordered a colleague and me to close down web sites we had set up to describe our science, while the Institute’s web site was doing nothing along those lines. And there was the constant commercial vetting of submitted papers, and withdrawal from publication if there was a slight possibility that the findings could be patented or commercialised.
On the one had it is shocking that political and commercial pressure can be exerted in this manner. But it is even worse that managers and other bureaucrats don’t resist this pressure. Instead they treat their scientific staff as the source of such problems.
There can be a real cultural disconnect in these institutes between the scientific staff and their managers who often don’t have a science background, or have left it behind as part of their transition to management. Commercialisation of science has also led to the importation of a foreign commercial culture. All this produces a weird type of bureaucracy which is probably unique to modern scientific institutes.
Let’s hope Jim Salinger’s “day in court” will expose some of this and that he gets a favourable decision.