In the thick of it: Nicola Gaston and Sandra Grey

The third in our lunchtime seminar series. Nicola Gaston and Sandra Grey, from Victoria University, on whether public funding is shutting down the voices of scientists, NGOs, health and other experts.

The video of this seminar can be viewed here, and you can watch or read the other seminars in this series here.


Nicola Gaston: Thank you very much for that warm welcome. Kia ora tatou. So I’m here to speak for the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and this is an association that’s existed for a while now. Its main purpose for existing is to advocate with science and for scientists. And that’s a fairly clear principle, but it’s been reinforced to me very clearly since I took on the job of president, about a year ago, what that job is and why we have it.

We have a set of rules of the Association, and I went and looked them up at some point. The short version that I’d give at our annual conference or at one of our annual award ceremonies would be that we exist to promote the public discussion of science, to encourage the wide application of science, to defend scientific fact, promote intellectual freedom and encourage scientific excellence.

We work towards those goals through running conferences every year, and our upcoming conference in April will be on the topic of scientists speaking out or going public. We present annual awards for significant achievements in science and we publish the New Zealand Science Review, which is a good home for original contributions on matters of science policy in New Zealand.

But there are two very specific goals in our rules that I’ve been giving a bit of thought to recently, and so I’ll read these out for you. Goal 4.7 is “to defend the right of society to access scientists’ professional expertise,” and 4.8: “to combat all tendencies to limit scientific investigation or to suppress scientific discoveries.” These two things might be a bit more challenging and less immediately satisfying than giving out awards or running conferences, which are rather more pleasurable duties. But it has been becoming more and more evident that in order to achieve these goals, we need to represent and support and amplify the voices of our scientists.

The labelling of Dr Mike Joy a couple of years ago as a traitor, a statement that was strongly supported in a Herald editorial at the time, was an occasion upon which some support was clearly called for.

But the reason I’m here today is to talk about the results of a recent survey. We carried this out in order to sample the voices of scientists in New Zealand on this topic. There’s a bit of background to this, which I’ll summarise very briefly. We’d previously surveyed scientists in New Zealand on their experiences with the National Science Challenges. This is a new science funding programme that has been getting going slowly for a couple of years and the Minister, Steven Joyce, had commented that he had heard very little criticism of the initiative. And so we went out and asked scientists to tell us confidentially what they thought, and we got very direct comments back. “The Challenges should be used as a case study in how not to fund research.” “Hoping this is anonymous, because I don’t want to be quoted on this leading up to the Election, but I believe that the National Science Challenges are a complete waste of time and money and will divert money away from good science and give it to the people with the loudest voice.” So it was pretty clear in the comments that we received in that survey that whoever the minister was listening to, and they may be very worthy, well-qualified people, they were not representing the voices of the scientists that we were hearing from.

The catalyst for our more recent survey is the proposed development of a code of public engagement, which is being considered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, currently. And this code was really just a footnote in a Ministry document summarising their Science in Society project - this was called A Nation of Curious Minds. When I was first asked about this proposed code by a journalist, I was rather reluctant to comment, because there was so very little there. And so I suggested that the journalist should go and ask Sir Peter Gluckman, who was running this project, to comment on what this was intended to say, and then that gave us a little bit more to go on. So Sir Peter Gluckman, who is the chief science advisor to the Prime Minister, clarified that he was concerned by scientists saying things that they shouldn’t, that were outside their areas of expertise and by advocating. His statements were generally interpreted in support of concerns that the proposed code would aim to limit or to set boundaries on what scientists can say. So we did this survey to ask scientists what they thought about the code, but also what experience they already had in talking about their science in public.

First of all, another disclaimer: I don’t want to make any claims about the representativeness of this poll. It was a very simple poll. Radio New Zealand ran with a headline of “40% of scientists in New Zealand feel gagged”, which is not right. Forty percent of the respondents did tick that box, but definitely the people who responded to our survey were self-selected, and you can imagine that they might have been more likely than other people to have concerns. But another reason for disliking that headline is that the comments that we received paint a picture which is much more complex than any numeric analysis. I don’t have any particular training in social science, and I’m very sure that somebody who does might be able to criticise the construction of that particular survey. But probably half the questions that we asked were included for the sole purpose of finding out who was responding to us, and we could see, as firstly the Public Service Association and then the Tertiary Education Union publicised our survey over that week, that the demographic shifted, and we got, in the end, a really good balance of CRI and university respondents, which was nice. So we’re really grateful for that assistance, because it did make a difference, and I think it’s important to recognise that we can work together on some of these issues.

Back to the survey. Of about 400 responses that we received within about a week - and frankly reading through all the comments we got, I don’t think we wanted more responses; it’s hard enough to read through everything as it is - we got 700 written comments in response to the different questions that we asked. So instead of reporting that 40% of respondents told us that they felt gagged in their work, I can tell you that many of those who replied, no, that they did not personally feel gagged, went on to indicate that they’d seen other scientists being gagged. Or that the only reason that this was not an issue for them was that their field of research was well removed from political concerns. And those comments, I would say, were probably more revealing than those from scientists who felt gagged themselves.

The quotes that we’ve published or shared have been quite deliberately selected. Given the nature of the poll that we conducted, I don’t think we can claim any great lack of bias. But I do take, seriously, the concerns of many of the respondents that being seen to air such views in public would be prejudicial to their careers, and so we’ve refrained from using any of the comments which identified people. I’d also emphasize that what we were interested in is highlighting the issues that scientists have in common, rather than latching on to the more extreme examples that have been shared with us. In particular, I would say that it’s worth recognising that many of the concerns are shared by university and CRI scientists, and I think that’s really interesting, because it indicates the extent to which the problem is a cultural one.

Right, so I’m going to run through some of the comments – a selected few. In response to the question, “Have you ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy or by fear of losing research funding?” - “There is a conflict between a scientist’s obligation to comment and the responsibility of a council worker to his/her political masters. There is a huge aversion to perceived risk, especially for prioritising work which necessarily identifies what is the greatest hazard to the public - yet this cannot be communicated.” I’m allowed to talk to the public on my area of expertise, but not to reporters.” “I’ve been advised on occasion that it would be preferable not to draw attention to some of my research that is counter to Government policy.” “There is a culture of fear within our CRI. This is linked to job security. Management treat us as minions. Further, if we speak out about a product or direction of a stakeholder, a person we’re doing work for, I’m certain we’d be forced to leave the CRI.” “First of all, like other CRIs, we have a policy that prevents media statements without expressly being authorised by a senior manager or media officer. There is also the government’s ‘no surprises’ policy. These limit most media communication to good news stories about science and make speaking on controversial issues complicated and potentially prohibited.” In terms of actual events where clear prevention occurred while working for a CRI, I worked out with my manager and acting CEO that it would be appropriate to represent an environmental NGO in giving evidence to a government regulatory body that would effectively have been public, to ensure this NGO had access to some expert testimony on a high profile issue. The CEO returned from leave and quashed this testimony to avoid having the CRI associated with the NGO.”

But I really do want to emphasize that this isn’t just about the CRIs. There were quite a few comments from university academics as well: “In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academic speaking in public on controversial issues or issues that might impact the reputation of the institution. I’m always very careful to make it clear that I’m speaking as an individual and not on behalf of my organisation.” Or another one: “We rely on Ministry of Health funding and we believe advocating for better health responses would jeopardise this essential income stream, as our area of work is not currently a government priority and consequently would be easy to cut.” “Yes, I have been fearful of making controversial public comments for fear it would jeopardise funding which would result in job loss for others in my team, even if not for me.” “My science has been in academia working on topics which are not politically or commercially controversial, so I have not been at risk of knee-capping. However, I strongly sympathize with scientists working in sensitive areas whose research funding or even careers could be jeopardised if they annoy political or commercial interests by revealing inconvenient truths. New Zealand needs a Commissioner for Science immune from political pressure who could validate scientific findings and protect scientists from vindictive behaviour by those in power. The Royal Society should be able to fill this role, but has apparently been emasculated by its dependency on government contracts for survival.”

There’s one here that’s slightly more amusing, in a dark humour kind of way: “Literally no, but I’m fairly sure that my public advocacy has cost me funding opportunities. On the whole, university managers have not been as obstructive, although in the midst of one particularly controversial issue, I did decline to take a phone call from my Vice-Chancellor while I was in a television studio preparing to be interviewed on a live current affairs programme.”

Another question: “Do you have any concerns about the suggested revision of the Code?” “The Royal Society of New Zealand Code of Ethics already covers the communication of knowledge to the public, which has to be done in an ethical and responsible manner, so a revision to the Code seems superfluous, at best. The only thing that could be discussed, maybe, would be to spread the Code to all universities and research institutes.” “I’m very concerned that advocacy is becoming regarded as a sin. This could easily be used against public health advocates arguing about accessibility, advertising of gambling, alcohol or fast food.” Here’s one from a more optimistic perspective: “I think it would be jolly useful to have a wider code for public engagement, particularly for CRIs who sometimes have a communication policy that is designed to serve or enhance their financial status rather than to promote the communication of their scientific research per se.”

And one final question I’ll give you a few responses to. “Could the suggested revisions to the Code affect your willingness to speak publicly about matters of public interest to which your research is relevant?” And from some people who said no: “I already feel that speaking publicly from a science platform on politically contentious issues is a risk.” “No, but then I’m over 60 and relatively bullet-proof in terms of promotion, etc.” Or, in contrast, “I’m not tenured, and I have a family to support. I don’t speak out publicly, period.” “I already consider public engagement to be an unrecognised and unrewarded activity for a scientist employee in New Zealand. Any further restrictions on the new Code will likely serve to only strengthen that view and act as a further disincentive not to engage publicly.” “I would resign from the Royal Society if there was a conflict or if it appeared that any code created the realistic possibility of conflict.”

And then there were quite a few comments at the end of the survey which were mostly rather nice. “Thank you for your efforts to preserve the preconditions for an informed democracy.” “Thanks for doing this survey. Based on how Canadian government scientists have been effectively silenced on things like global warming and climate change, the idea of this happening in New Zealand frightens me.” “Yes, I think it is vital that NZAS resists this Code of Conduct and that it allies with civil society which totally depends on public good science and the ability of scientists to speak out. They should have this right as a matter of the Bill of Rights as well as in their scientific capacity. Universities have already gone too far in gagging staff on internal matters. These are vital freedoms and should not be lost. Please work with other organisations as well as through NZAS.”

So, I want to say again, thanks for the invitation to be here.

And here’s one last comment: “I’m concerned about Gluckman’s championing of The Honest Broker concept. The concept assumes either the belief or the pretence of objective understanding and lack of personal bias. Anyone who believes they are objective and unbiased clearly lacks self-knowledge, and anyone who pretends to be objective and unbiased is not engaging with public or policy makers transparently and honestly.”

So I’ll say a few words just to wrap up and summarise why I think that last quote is particularly interesting. I don’t know if anyone in the audience has seen the online discussion that’s happened around Watson in the last few days? This is Watson, of Watson and Crick fame, the discoverers of the structure of DNA who won the Nobel Prize, which was also notably not awarded to Russell and Franklin, and there’s been a lot of really interesting things written on the internet – some humorous ones. There’s a Kickstarter’s, that you can chip in to bid on his Nobel Prize, which he has now put up for auction. Apparently, his speaking engagements have dried up after a few rather racist and sexist things… [warping 15.04] How we deal in science with these great men, these Nobel Prize winners, these great people who have made these significant scientific advances.

A few months ago there was the same discussion about Richard Feynman, again, a problematic individual in scientific history. There’s a great blog post on Scientific American Blogs at the moment which summarises some of the ethical issues around this, and how we deal with science and the objectivity that we claim, the expertise that we claim. And the quote that I wanted to use here is that, “objectivity is the result of team work.” Now, that’s a really powerful thing that I think we should all be thinking about. And so what we need to think about is that not only in science, where we have this idea of scientific knowledge being advanced by a collection of individuals who put up hypotheses, test them, feedback results and make progress in such a fashion - it’s actually very important that scientists can dare to be wrong. Also, in science communication, when you’re wanting to get scientists to talk about the work in public, I think we should be equally able to acknowledge that sometimes people will say things that are wrong. And it seems to me that there’s a very strange tension between scientific enterprise as a whole and the way that we’re dealing with science communication and the idea, the concept, of expertise in communicating science in these areas.

And that’s, I think, the conversation that we want to have, and I’m very pleased to start that today. Thank you.


Sandra Grey: Well now you’re gonna think we collaborated, but I am going to tell the tale, which is, we work on the same university campus, and this is the first time we’ve met, despite the fact that we share some very similar concerns, and we certainly didn’t conspire on what we were going to say today.

But I am gonna just build on the idea of expertise and objectivity. I am going to claim my expertise of why I’m about to deliver to you a broader topic than just discussing being a university academic, and some of the constraints that I see for the work I do on community and voluntary sector.

I’m a political scientist. I think I research and I write on a range of areas on political science. And when reflecting on today, I actually thought, to broaden out the debate a little, I would start by positioning my normative position, my non-objective position, which is as a political scientist, I believe in deep democracy. So that is democracy where citizens are engaged, where scientific communities are engaged, where people like me who work in the social sciences are engaged, where unions are engaged, where churches are engaged. I think that we need to remind ourselves occasionally what we mean by democracy. So I start from that position.

For me, democracy is not a tick box exercise. It’s not something you just do because you have to consult, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a felt state. And one of the things I would say is, a lot of my research recently I’ve realised that the New Zealand public, those engaged in the community and voluntary sector, those engaged in public campaigning and activism, a whole range of thepublics that are out there, currently feel that our democracy, New Zealand democracy, is actually in decline, and in fairly rapid decline.

And so I wanna talk on three projects about democracy - all showing what I think is a democratic deficit, and all building on what you’ve heard around what’s happening with scientists.

The first is I wanna share with you very briefly the project and work I’ve been doing with my colleague Charles Sedgwick on the community and voluntary sector and their interaction with the state. Our view is that the community and voluntary sector, those organisations that work in our communities, that provide social service provision, that do advocacy work, that engage in working in our communities are actually the voice of the most marginalised New Zealanders. So we start from that perspective. They are actually a representation of the voice of the most marginalised, who often aren’t heard, unless the community and voluntary sector is there. So we necessarily see the community and voluntary sector as having a crucial role to play in democracy then.

We’ve done two surveys, five years apart, which show, unfortunately, many of the things that scientists are expressing, which again, we didn’t collude on this, but if you work in the community and voluntary sector now, you’re only allowed to tell good news stories. You’re not allowed to talk about the bad things that are happening. And I’ve actually had meetings with ministers who have said the same thing to me: ‘Stop telling us the bad news. We want to hear the good news story about the community that is working.’ Well, there are good news stories. The community and voluntary sector workers work really hard to make sure there are good news stories, but there’s a lot of bad going on, and we can’t ignore it because we want to talk about good news.

The fear that if you speak out - the same fear that if you speak out, your funding will be taken away. This has become quite controversial, and it’s why I opened with saying democracy is a felt state. Whether or not public sector contracts with the community and voluntary sector include gag clauses and say, ‘you can’t speak out’ is actually to me quite irrelevant. The fact that the community and voluntary sector feel they are being gagged is the relevant part of this. If the community and voluntary sector – and we did a survey of 93 organisations, [who] responded during those two years – a quarter of them are saying in 2013 that there are gag clauses in their contracts, that’s modifying their behaviour. They won’t speak out publicly. And they give us examples and they’re very similar to the scientists’ examples: ‘oh we have to check everything off with the government department we’re working with,’ ‘we can’t speak unless it’s been signed off by the minister,’ – so they give those similar examples. Now that’s not saying people can’t speak, but they interpret it as, it’s easier not to.

And nearly 60% of our respondents in 2013 said, if you speak out, your funding will be taken away. So they, too, spoke about the kind of vindictive behaviour idea. That if you speak out, the public servants you’re working with and the minister who you’re working for, will take away your funding. Therefore, don’t speak. So it’s 58.1% of our respondents. That’s really shocking. I will say the respondents we got, it was a purpose [?21.39] of sampling, so we were trying to get a spread of organisations. We have some of New Zealand’s biggest multi-million dollar charities who are doing community work, and some very small organisations – and everything in between.

One of New Zealand’s most respected charities, when they responded to our survey - and it’s similar to scientists saying, please don’t let anybody know I spoke about this before the Election - wrote all over the envelope, “Please tell no-one we have participated. If anyone finds out, we will lose our funding.” And they wrote it all over their envelope and all down the sides of the survey documentation. Now that shows a level of fear in New Zealand democracy that can’t be allowed to continue. And no matter how many times I have conversations with people who say, “But that’s not what we intended,” – that is the reality felt by the community and voluntary sector.

The second part of my research actually does centre on the work that people like Nicola and I do in the university environment. It is about the critic and conscience role of academics and students at university, so I was specifically looking at universities, because that’s where my research extends to. Other institutions do have a critic and conscience function, but my work looks at that. I would say one of the things around our space now as academics is that we’re seeing tighter control and auditing measures, which leads to a compliance culture. So what does that mean? Well, there are performance demands on all of us. Performance demands for outputs – and you understand this, cos there’s a whole lot of those in the public sector as well, and I do understand that. Those outputs then become the targets for what everybody does, and the outputs that’s most revered in our profession now as academics are peer review. Journal articles and commercialisable research. Whether or not that’s the intent of what the government wants, that’s what is happening on the ground in our institutions.

So what slips off the work plan? This: public engagement. What slips off the work plan? Time with our students. Time to engage in controversial debates, if that’s what we choose to do. Not all academics actually use their critic and conscience function in a way that I’d like to see us using. But I think the fact that we are seeing constraints now placed on it means we’ll increasingly see less people from universities joining in public debate, joining in constitutional debates. One of the cases that was very dear to my heart and those that were engaged with the campaign for MMP will know that when we were fighting the referendum over the future of MMP, I became engaged with the campaign group.

Now originally I got engaged with that group because the political science says, New Zealand currently in this space, the best system for us is MMP. So the political science encouraged me to engage in the debate. I wanted to go in to provide expert advice, but became the spokesperson. The thing that interested me is I didn’t think I’d be the only political scientist in New Zealand to engage in that debate, because it is an important constitutional debate. And we have a rightful place, as people who study electoral systems, as people who study democracy, to engage. It turned out that I was the only political scientist who engaged. And my colleagues said, they’d like to, but they’ve been encouraged not to by the employer, who said, ‘Actually, that’s not part of your core work to engage in those debates.’ I had colleagues who joined the campaign and then were actively told that they were not allowed to until they had completed the piece of research work that was on their desk. So there was active discouragement. Others who said, “in the current climate it’s probably best if we don’t engage in public debate, but good on you.” And that’s become the default in universities, is to push one or two people out in front, and for everybody else to go behind closed doors – and that is not a good thing for democracy.

The third part of my work looks at four decades of activism and protest in New Zealand - at core, grass roots protesting. I am just going to paint you a very broad picture. Many of you who have been around for years involved in unions and in community organisations and in the public sector will probably recognise this map. What we see in New Zealand is a pretty steady level of activism, of protesting, of letter writing, of public meetings, of public engagement through the 70s and into the early 1980s. There is a massive spike in activism in New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s, so this is just looking at a longitudinal study in the pattern of activism. Why? Because there were major structural changes and we had a lot of people out on the streets protesting those major structural changes. Then, a sudden decline, to historically low levels of civic engagement. Might be picking up again, but I haven’t done the last couple of years of analysis. But historically low – below the levels we had in the 1970s and the 1980s – it just dropped off. So I think in all three spheres that I research, democracy is in decline.

The question for me always then is why. And I’m gonna give you some analysis that I have been doing over the last eight years that I’ve been researching these projects. The first is the rise of public choice narratives. This has an uneven impact. Any time I speak as a trade union activist, any time I speak as a person who’s engaged in protest and dissent, I am doing it to feather my own nest, to advance my own cause, because I will have a personal gain out of it. Therefore, I’m a vested interest who must be taken out of the public debate. This is a really dangerous narrative, because it has uneven impacts on citizens. Citizens, lobby groups and interest groups and unions have been wiped out of the public debate. Who’s left? Big business and financial lobbies have risen in their power to advocate on behalf of the public good. They are not seen as vested interests, and this is worrying.

We’ve had successive governments take the politics out of politics. What do I mean by that? They continually claim that what they are doing is pragmatic and objective and what they are doing is necessary – there is no alternative. They deny the political. We have in New Zealand executive dominance, and all pieces of research I look at talk about the dominance of the executive, of the Ministers of the Crown and that small table that is Cabinet. They sideline experts. In fact, they do ad hominem personal attacks on experts they disagree with.  They ignore public lobby groups and dismiss them and they ignore any sort of public referendum. Now, I’m not an advocate for binding referendum, but I think the outright dismissal of public will is problematic. And the respondents to our survey in the community and voluntary sector see this. They say, ‘we get invited to consultations. We get invited to talk with the minister and with public servants, but there is always a subtext of, we’ve already made up our minds, but we have to listen to appear to be the good guys.’ The appearance of democracy, but not really. There’s a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that people have a right to their opinions but it will change nothing – so that’s what I mean by executive dominance.

There’s a rejection of citizen voice. Repeatedly governments have spoken about the people as though they are the worst thing out there – citizens. And I’m sure she regrets making the statement, but it keeps coming back, Helen Clark in 2004, talked about the hikoi over the foreshore and seabed legislation, and said those people were haters and wreckers. That’s a terrible time to talk about protesters. They are not haters and wreckers; they are actively engaged citizens. It’s what we want in our democracy. In 2012 John Key urged the public to pay no attention to those people protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership – urging the rest of the public to dismiss citizen voice. And Bill English, when he met with Grey Power over the asset sales petition said, well, I know it’s got lots of signatures, but it’s going to make no difference. So he dismissed it before the process had run its course. Those actions matter, from our political leaders. Whatever you think about the political issues, the fact that politicians are publicly dismissing citizen voice is problematic.

We’ve also lost a lot of public spaces, and one of the ones I’ll speak about in this room, particularly, is the loss of the organising power of unions. You’re not born an activist. You’re not born a person who knows how to run a meeting or run a public meeting or run a public campaign – you learn those skills. The decimation of unions and the attacks on the community and voluntary sector mean people aren’t learning the skills they need to be active citizens. We are losing that space.

So, we’re hollowing out our democracy. Democracy now in New Zealand, like many parts of the west, is becoming a mechanism for creating governments and ensuring the succession of governments and government power. That’s not democracy. You can do that in authoritarian regimes, the succession of governments.

I want to highlight the fact that I think we need to do something about it. Can we? Can those of us paid by the public purse do something about it? This is the challenge I would have. Writing on my own profession and the idea of being an activist inside academia and being one of those people that does raise issues at meetings and actively engages in public debate, I’ve been struck by the campaigns world-wide. And this quote comes out of the US, which said, “As academics, all of us were concerned about what was happening, and we were waiting for someone else to take the lead in moving civic engagement work. But it hadn’t happened. So everybody was waiting for someone else to come in and say, yes we have a public role to play. What we have now discovered is that we are the ones we have been waiting for.” So to put it in a less positive manner, because I don’t think we should just tell good news stories, we – the people working inside these institutions – are the ones contributing to the system’s functioning. So we have a role to play in changing it.

What must university staff do? I challenge frequently my colleagues: we must ensure that we recover and maintain our autonomy, our separation from the political, social and economic elite of the age. That we have a public good responsibility and we must act on it. Not just a right, but a responsibility. Similarly, we need a lively and independent civil society. We need community and voluntary sector groups who are trusted and valued. This is crucial to a healthy democracy. I would ask, because my research is about the interaction of community and voluntary sector with public servants and elected elite, I would ask and challenge you what can you do to make sure that this sector feels trusted and valued as contributors to democracy. What can politicians do? They have to acknowledge there is no single answer. They have to acknowledge that there are alternatives, and they have to not be afraid of the political. What we are talking about is what sort of society we want to live in. I do not want to live in a society where 20 people around a table get to make decisions for the rest of the population. I want us all actively creating the future.

What can unions do? Well, I applaud the PSA for holding this seminar series. We have to daily speak about these issues and engage in public debate. What I want to say is, those of us who sit in positions of relative privilege, which is what I think we do sit in, as public servants, as people paid by the public purse, must not only recognise our rights, but we actually have to fulfil our obligations to the public good.