Cracker by Damian Christie


Breaking the Silence

Last night I was invited to moderate a panel for the launch of Shaun Hendy’s new book, ‘Silencing Science’.  Shaun is a scientist, a science communicator and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been increasingly working in the field of science communication – with the Science Media Centre I have been travelling around a wide range of science conferences, running an express media training programme.  It’s what I call ‘white hat’ media training, in that the aim isn’t teaching people to avoid questions in favour of talking points, but simply to help the scientists explain their science better to the general public.  And in the express programme, each participant gets just twenty minutes from start to finish, and ends up with a 90 second video, which are collected here.  

It’s been a wonderful time, from Antarctic science to entomology, nanotechnology to geography… so many great stories, fascinating research about things I’d never heard of.  It’s made me want to devote more of my time to getting the word out about scientific research in New Zealand, and science in general.  It’s also alerted me to some of the issues science communicators face, which is the basis of Shaun’s book.

The forces which lead to science being ‘silenced’ are both external and internal to the science community. From Government pressure on scientists not to scare the public by highlighting aftershock risks in Christchurch; attacks on public health scientists such as those outlined in the Dirty Politics leaks; commercial confidentiality; to pressure from the scientists themselves as well as their peers, not to rock the boat, speak outside of their immediate expertise, or risk criticism.

It’s nothing new.  The book 'Merchants of Doubt' (the author of which I interviewed on Public Address Radio a while ago now) shows the same playbook has been running from the tobacco interests of the 1950s through to the softdrink and oil companies of today. And I’m sure if freshwater ecologist Mike Joy had challenged the Muldoon Government he would’ve come off with much the same anti-intellectual response he received from John Key, comparing an academic’s opinion to that of a lawyer. Which possibly means even less the more we know about Mr Key’s lawyer.

What is new is the increase in reliance on commercial funding; the pressures Universities place on academics to publish; and the changing nature of the media, where scientists are most likely to find a platform.  Just this week we have heard about the axe hanging over RNZ’s “Our Changing World”, which has prompted the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman to lobby for the show’s continuation. 

Specialist science reporters are on the critically endangered list, meaning often the person entrusted with today’s climate change news is the same writing yesterday’s Bachelor article.  As a reporter, I’ve personally been handed a science story in the morning on a topic I know nothing about, with the expectation there will be a two minute piece on air at 6pm.  A piece which one hopes hasn’t made too many factual errors, or been unwittingly captured by the wrong interests, or tried to create balance in an issue where an overwhelming majority has found consensus (climate change, for instance).  I’ve always taken great pains to try and get things right – and I don’t think any reporters set out to be wrong – but you don’t know what you don’t know, and in science, that’s a lot.

'Silencing Science' considers what role our scientists should have in society.  Should they simply present the public and the politicians with the pros and cons, the available evidence, then step away from the decision making process? Or should they advocate a view, like Mike Joy, and use what they know together with a value judgement, and push back against those who stand in the way of good decision making?

I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that given some of the people we have run the country, I’d be quite happy being ruled by a benevolent wise council of elders. And over the past couple of years on this science communication journey, I’ve met a number of people who I think would qualify. 

[EDIT: A number of people have been talking about John Oliver's take on this issue from just last week, so here it is. Thanks Bob for the link]

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