22 Jun 2015

Calls for investigation into silenced scientists

8:03 pm on 22 June 2015

The Labour Party is urging the Government to set up an independent investigation into claims that many scientists feel gagged.

man in lab coat and microscope

Photo: AFP

The Government is disputing the accuracy of a survey that has found 40 percent of scientists feel they can't speak publicly about their field of expertise, either because they are forbidden to or because they fear losing funding.

David Cunliffe

David Cunliffe Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Labour science and innovation spokesperson David Cunliffe said any silencing of scientists was insidious.

"Academics often feel suppressed from speaking openly about the results of their research if it's going to rock the boat, shall we say, either for the university or the government.

"Academic freedom means that our scientists and our research should be able to state publicly the results of their research. And there's a public good in that - that's how we as a society get the facts and learn."

New Zealand First science spokesperson Darroch Ball said the problem was a lack of government and private sector funding for research and development - which left scientists competing for a limited pool of money.

Mr Ball said the Government needed to find out what was going on.

"I think the first step we need to take is to involve the scientists in a very open and transparent discussion about what is really going on.

"And where the pressure is coming from, and what they think will help them be able to feel less pressure and be able to publish what they want," Mr Ball said.

"At the moment we've got a government that's totally ignoring half of scientists that are coming out and saying they are feeling this pressure."

Steven Joyce talks about Sky City deal with the Government.

Steven Joyce Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

However, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said he did not believe the survey was scientifically robust.

Mr Joyce said the Government would need to see a lot more evidence to be convinced there was a problem.

"I think it's important before you take something further you actually have some evidence. And I think the interesting thing about science as we know is that it is all about evidence.

"I would be keen to hear any evidence of this concern that was causing the public not to be properly informed - that wouldn't be right.

"And I'm very much in favour of science communication and making sure the public is fully informed. But you'd have to have a heck of a lot more evidence than we've got from one write-in survey."

Gareth Hughes announcing he'll stand for co-leader of the Green Party

Gareth Hughes Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Green Party science spokesperson Gareth Hughes said the Minister's response was not good enough.

Mr Hughes said it was Mr Joyce's job to ensure there was a climate where scientists could speak publicly.

"I think it's important that the Minister for Science, Steven Joyce, takes it seriously and I think it's incredibly rich for Steven Joyce to say there's no evidence when you see scientists, the New Zealand Association of Scientists and a survey showing scientists do in fact feel gagged."

The Association of Scientists, which carried out the original survey, said more scientists had come forward since it was published, saying they too feel gagged.

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