14 May 2015

Scientists Speaking Out

From Our Changing World, 9:55 pm on 14 May 2015

by Veronika Meduna

Hardly a week goes by without a major science issue making headlines. In many cases, scientists are not only called upon to discuss specific aspects of the science but find themselves in a position of having to defend evidence-based research.

The latest example last week is the University of Western Australia's decision to pull out of a controversial think tank that was to be run by climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg

The Australian government had earmarked A$4 million to set up the Australia Consensus Centre, to be modelled on Lomborg's Copenhagen centre, which lost its Danish government funding in 2012. The university at first agreed to host the centre, but then cancelled the contract following what Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson described as "strong and passionate emotional reaction" from academics.

In a message posted on the university's website, he had to admit that the scale of the reaction was "one that the university did not predict".

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.

Discussion ranged from empowering scientists to speak out, to ensuring scientists are trusted communicators, to the responsibilities scientists hold when they engage with the public.

During the first panel discussion, journalist Nikki Macdonald, former ESR chief executive John Hay, communications specialist Brett Sangster, and Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin discussed the interaction between the media, the government, and scientists.

This was followed by several scientists who have spoken out on controversial issues discussing their personal experiences:

University of Canterbury molecular biologist Jack Heinemann

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles

and vet, ecologist and agribusiness expert Alison Dewes.

The next series of presentations focused on how institutions view the role of scientists speaking out on controversial issues, and included:

RSNZ President and former University of Otago Vice Chancellor Sir David Skegg

Victoria University Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford

and Helen Anderson, who holds several directorships in science organisations.

The topic of public interest and the responsibilities of scientists was discussed by:

agribusiness commentator Doug Edmeades

Victoria University social scientist Sandra Gray

public health physician and University of Auckland lecturer Rhys Jones

and GNS Science and Te Papa geologist Hamish Campbell

Social media made a strong contribution to the conference, and to catch up on participants' tweets, you can have a look at this storify archive.

In this discussion, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, Siouxsie Wiles (University of Auckland microbiologist), NZAS president Nicola Gaston, and Shaun Hendy (University of Auckland physicist) tackled the question "Where to from here?"