Climate scientist, Jim Salinger, is scheduled to go into mediation today with his former employer NIWA. He is taking legal action after his shock dismissal three weeks ago (see Clamping down on science communication) .
Some climate change deniers appeared happy over Salinger’s sacking. But it’s important to realise that the dismissal had nothing to do with any climate change controversy. Dr Salinger was sacked because he talked to media organisation without prior approval of the management bureaucracy at NIWA.
Unfortunately, the legal case may be considered solely on the issue of whether or not Salinger violated a “lawful” bureaucratic edict by his employers. I hope this is not the case. Natural justice requires that the whole problem of bureaucratic control of science communication to the public be aired.
NZ scientists concerned
On this question a few comments by scientific colleagues (presumably well away from NIWA’s bureaucratic smothering) are very relevant.
John Lancashire, president of the Institute of Agriculture and Horticultural Science (and one of my former scientific managers), expressed embarrassment at NIWA’s actions (see Sacked scientist uses free time for unpaid work):
“We are exposed as an immature, bureaucratic and small-minded country who cannot manage creative people.”
“Much of science is run by managers, not scientists, and managing scientists is not the same as managing other businesses.”
Dr Andy Reisinger, a previous employee of NIWA and now at Victoria University said :
“Speaking to the media is a fundamental right for university scientists. CRIs, for better or worse, are structures as corporate and there is pressure from corporate mangers to fit the bill.”
Another former NIWA scientist, Dr Dave Lowe, said working at the University of California and Victoria University of Wellington was “like a breath of fresh air” compared with the ‘draconian’ rules at CRIs. And another former science manager of mine at AgResearch, Dr Doug Edmeades, pointed to the problem of commercial orientation in CRIs. He said it was not always easy to tell if scientists from CRIs were speaking as publicly funded experts or salespeople for commercial products developed by the institutes (see Scientists want Govt rethink).
The New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) called for examination of the business model of management in place in government-funded science institutions, such as Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) (see Scientists concerned about free speech). NZAS president, associate professor Kathryn McGrath, said:
“Communicating scientific advances to the public and commenting publicly on relevant science issues is an essential part of the scientific process, particularly in non-commercial areas supported by the taxpayer.”
“All of us, as scientists, believe it is essential that the general public have access to good scientific comment and information. Without science the New Zealand economy and social infrastructure is weakened, so it is in the public interest to have freely accessible information that allows politicians, the ordinary public, and funding providers to make good decisions. That requires us to feel that we can comment when we need to or are asked to do so.”
“The requirement of scientists to act as communicators to a broad range of people should be a fundamental right, and an expectation even. Not just a right that we choose to use or not, but a professional expectation that all of us should aspire to live up to.”
Hobbling good science, allowing bad science
The danger of bureaucratic muzzling of CRI scientists is demonstrated by a recent article, We need to be listening to science, published in the New Zealand Herald. Written by Chris de Freitas, an Associate professor of Geography at Auckland University, it repeated the common mantra of climate change deniers. So de Freitas is able to communicate a misleading interpretation of climate science to the public. But an authoritative and balanced presentation from a CRI scientist is prevented from reaching public view because of harsh bureaucratic restrictions.
I am all in favour of peer review – this helps give authority to the science that is communicated. And perhaps Universities should insist on better review of the science presented by their employees. That might help prevent misinformation of the sort Chris de Feitas presented. But in this current situation the public are being denied access to reliable science countering de Freitas’ misinformation purely because of bureaucratic bloody mindedness.
That’s not in the public interest.