11 Aug 2016

Speaking out for science

From Our Changing World, 9:15 pm on 11 August 2016

The President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists is unimpressed with the Royal Society of New Zealand’s new guidelines on how and when to speak out, saying the document “doesn’t particularly add to the conversation”.

The goal of the Public engagement guidelines for researchers, scholars and scientists – which were produced by a committee of scientists, who also ran a series of public discussions to get input from other scientists – is laudable. Its intent is to encourage researchers to communicate about science, whilst providing guidance about when it is appropriate – or not - to speak out.

Model scientists.

Model scientists. Photo: CC BY-NC 2.0 BRICK 101 / Flickr

In October 2014, RNZ reported that ‘some scientists fear a proposed code governing what they can speak out about is actually an attempt to gag them.’ The resulting four-page document covers 23 points that ‘researchers should’ do when it comes to speaking out.

Most of these points are simply common sense: avoid complex technical language, respect commercial sensitivity, ask other scientists or science communicators for advice etc.

Unfortunately, the points are not written as simply and concisely as that, and Our Changing World suspects that many people won’t take the time to wade through the dense writing of the guidelines.

Our Changing World asked the New Zealand Association of Scientists President, Craig Stevens, to comment on the guidelines. The Association is an independent association that works to promote science and the public understanding of science.

“Some nice evidence of how we’re uncertain about how to deal with the document is that the New Zealand Association of Scientists has a range of members, and a range of perspectives, and we can’t come up with a clear position on it,” says Craig.

"Everyone sees different bits in it as being either helpful or completely unhelpful ... and so clearly it doesn’t work across the full spectrum of scientists.”

“I don’t think this document particularly adds to the conversation,” says Craig.

“It’s all focused on the individual researcher and most of the points it makes are pretty self-evident … What it does is it leaves out the other players in this multi-path conversation. There are a number of organisations, these organisations will have employment contracts. Every piece of scientific work that gets done has a contract, and these all have stipulations around communication and engagement. Then we have to factor in the media’s role in this.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand was requested by the Government to develop the guidelines as part of A Nation of Curious Minds, one of the National Science Challenges.

The topic of controversial science and scientists' role in debate was the focus of the 2015 New Zealand Association of Scientists annual conference, ‘Going Public: Scientists speaking out on difficult issues’. This debate was made available on Our Changing World’s web page.

Sean Hendy, former President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists has written about scientists speaking out on topical issues in his book ‘Silencing Science.’

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