2 Oct 2014

Fears proposed code could gag science

9:30 am on 2 October 2014

Some scientists fear a proposed code governing what they can speak out about is actually an attempt to gag them.

The idea is referred to as the 'code for public engagement', and could sit alongside the Royal Society's existing Code of Ethics.

The Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman said the Royal Society has been asked to look at its current Code of Ethics and decide if it is up to scratch. If it is not, then consultation will begin on a new code.

Some scientists fear a proposed code governing what they can speak out about is an attempt to gag them.

Some scientists fear a proposed code governing what they can speak out about is an attempt to gag them. Photo: SCIENCE PHOTO

Sir Peter said scientists have no need to feel they will be gagged under the proposed guidelines and that it will be up to the Royal Society to decide whether to create the new code or stick with its existing Code of Ethics.

The proposed new code is, according to Sir Peter, becoming common practise around the world because governments are concerned that scientists are straying into advocacy rather than sticking to their expertise.

Sir Peter said countries across the globe are reviewing codes of ethics after comments made by scientists about a major Italian earthquake and Japan's 2011 tsunami and earthquake.

And scientists in New Zealand are not immune to straying outside of their areas of expertise either, he said.

Sir Peter said the new code would encourage scientists to speak out, but give them guidelines for doing so.

Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter Gluckman says obesity crisis will also affect Chinese and Asian communities Photo: SUPPLIED

Concern among scientists

The existing Code of Ethics states that scientists may only represent themselves as experts in their fields of competence, must be fair and balanced, declare any conflicts of interest and ensure their public statements are supported by research.

Scientists spoken to by Radio New Zealand said there is no need for a new code and some fear that such a code is actually a way to rein them in.

Academics are allowed to speak out because of clauses in their contracts that encourage them to be the "critics and conscience of society".

And scientists working for government institutes rarely talk to the media about controversial topics, are not allowed to speak two months before an election. Before speaking to media they also have to get permission from their organisation.

Dr Mike Joy is a freshwater ecologist who has spoken about water quality and often disagrees with the government.

One government lobbyist described him as the "foot and mouth disease of the tourism industry"; Prime Minister John Key has claimed Dr Joy's data may not be factually correct and trade minister Tim Groser described him as "deeply unhelpful."

Dr Joy however, believes the current code is thorough enough and suspects the new code is a way for the government to silence its critics.

Dr Siousxie Wiles won the Prime Minister's Science Communication Prize last year. She agrees with Dr Joy that the existing Code of Ethics covers all that is needed. And she too wonders if the code is intended to rein in scientists.

Professor Shaun Hendy from Auckland University hopes the new code will encourage scientists to speak out, rather than rein them in.

He said the Fonterra botulism scare last year showed that there was a problem with scientists' freedom of speech.

He said in that case, the experts either were working for Fonterra, or for government agencies, and so did not feel comfortable speaking out about the contamination.

He is concerned there is now a climate where scientists are not encouraged to talk about controversial or difficult subjects.