Speaker by Various Artists

95

David Fisher: The OIA arms race

by David Fisher

Good afternoon everyone. I am David Fisher, a reporter with the New Zealand Herald. I have worked as a journalist for 25 years, mainly in New Zealand but across a number of other countries.

I think there's some value before I start in placing a context around the current situation in relation to the media and the Official Information Act.

In doing so, it should be said each of the following allegations is denied.

At the moment, there is an inquiry underway into whether a blogger gained some advantage in receiving information from the SIS for political purposes. There are also allegations of preferential treatment over the OIA involving the same blogger and the former Justice Minister.

The police are also facing allegations of trying to cover up juked stats by burying an OIA. And a former Customs lawyer has said his organisation preferred to let requests languish in the Ombudsman's office than dealing with them.

In the 25 years I have worked as a journalist, there have never been so many questions, or such a loss of faith, all at once.

So, when thinking of the OIA, I had thought to start in happier times.

The difference between when I started 25 years ago and now is astounding when it comes to dealing with the public service. If I was writing a story then which in any way touched on the public's interaction with government, I would pick up the phone and ring an official. It really was that easy.

Receptionists would direct you to areas in departments, and staff there would know who would be best placed to fill the gaps in my knowledge. That’s what we in the media need - knowledge. We don't need quotes, although they inevitably come with the information. We need information, unvarnished, unspun and in a form in which we can understand what it actually means.

When I started, if I wanted to know about something, I would ring and ask. For example, if I want to know about how Kauri stumps were exported, I would ring up the equivalent of the MPI and ask how Kauri stumps get exported. I would then spend half an hour on the phone to the guy who oversaw the exporting – often the guy who was physically down at the docks – and I would be informed.

It seems a novel idea now. I can barely convey to you now what a wonderful feeling that is, to be a man with a question the public wants answering connecting with the public servant who has the information.

I remember exactly when I sent my first OIA request. It was in 1993 to a crown health enterprise, the structure which managed health at the time. I remember why I turned to the OIA. There was a communications manager there who was difficult, obstructive. He was risk averse, complicated in his evasiveness. He was, in short, ahead of his time. In a decade many others would be as he was then. And, in a decade, this communications manager would be working for a giant tobacco company.

When I returned from working in the UK, in 2002, I found the public service still open and accessible but there were many more communications managers than there had been previously.

Then, it was the flow of communication they tried to manage – not the content or nature or it.

And this is how it worked. I would ring up to find out about exportation of kauri stumps. Reception would ask where I was from, and hearing I was from the media, would put me onto the communications department. The comms person there would listen closely and then go away and work out who had the answers for me. When they found the right person, that person would ring me – or I would be given their number to ring them.

Interviews would happen, which they generally do not now, and they would typically be about the most mundane matters. How does government work? Explain the machinery to me? And what came out the end?

It was process stuff – because, basically, that's what we do. We find out how the world works, and we explain it to our readers.

I would speak with those who were able to explain the machinery to me. Having taken that onboard, if it worked – then it worked. If it didn't, then it didn't. There was very little spin. It was a lot more honest than what it became.

It was, when you think about it, the OIA in action. My questions were verbal requests and the responses were the official information coming back.

The shift really began after the 2005 election, when Helen Clark's third term threatened to get away from her. I believe what happened then perverted all that has come since, when it comes to media and the public service.

The "no surprises" policy had been a feature of coalition agreements since 1996, and part of the SOE model.

It did what it said on the box – meant there would be no surprises for the government. Initially, it was a safety valve put into an agreement – a chance for someone to ask, is it a good idea to sell half of Transpower without telling the Prime Minister. Big things. Really big.

But before long, it crept out of SOEs and political agreements and spread its grip through the public service.

Ministers realised they had a device through which they could reduce the surprises they suffered. And, as it went on, the surprises ministers no longer wanted to experience became greater in number and smaller in significance.

Increasingly, it placed on the public service a political imperative which it had never had to shoulder. It had to think about what it might be that would surprise a minister. Decisions were made with the minister's discomfort in mind. Decisions were being made which were political in nature.

The answer to the question "what would surprise a minister" is pretty much anything. Damned journalists, you never know what they're going to do with information. Best not to give them any.

Interviews became fewer. Comms staff became distant and difficult.

Suddenly, to get information about how kauri stumps were exported, I went from ringing and asking and interviewing to ringing and then being told to put my request in writing.

The email would zip off and I would sit and wait. I know now, from the sources I have developed inside your agencies, that people would look at those questions and wonder what I was really after. A day later, I would get an email back answering my questions in the most unhelpful way you might imagine. They are cowardly answers, with a flinch in every sentence, as if they might be surrending the nugget I was really after – apparently the tool I can use to undo the machinery of government and bring it all crashing down.

What I would be sent would be lines to fill a hole. There's an impression among some that we need "talent", or lines in a story – like a hole in a wall needs Pollyfilla. The “lines” would arrive at 5pm, as the person who sent it to me ran out the door.

Such idiocy.

Now, the interviews are gone. We speak to public servants when they have something really good to boast about, or really bad to apologise for. There is no in between. We meet only at weddings and funerals, and that's no way to build a relationship.

The rest of the time, we don't really know what the other party is doing. We still need information, so we find other ways to get it.

Increasingly, as interviews fell away, we would send OIA requests. The less you spoke to us, the more we asked for. When civility was gone, we turned to the law and expected that to give us the answers we needed. I send more than a hundred every year.

Gradually, we began to suspect we were being screwed in this way as well. Ministers don't like being surprised by anything. OIA requests would be processed – then sent to the Beehive for sign off. I have the flow charts. I see the processes. They require OIAs which are being sent to the media to be sent to the minister for sign off. It astonishes me that any minister would think they have any business reviewing OIAs before they get sent out.

Before long, it seemed nobody wanted to surprise the minister. I've been told of officials deciding to remove surprising material before it went to the Beehive.

I know of ministers who have received the results of mundane requests, going through the “sign off” process but sending the OIA late because they are hunched over the response searching for "what that bastard Fisher is really after".

Where does that leave us?

In a dark place. I have a fairly kinetic relationship with many in the public service, largely because of the type of story I do. I was concerned I had a view which was too dark, to harsh, so I canvassed widely among colleagues before coming here. I was wrong.

There are far darker, grimmer views out there than mine. Simply, we don't trust you. By commission or ommission, we think many of those who handle our OIA requests don't have the public interest at heart. We don't trust the responses we get.

Of course, we may be completely wrong. We may have made a terrible mistake. But how would we know otherwise? You don't talk to us anymore. You're too scared to. Caught between the Beehive and the media, you don't know which to face.

Or at least, that's the impression we have.

And again, we might be completely wrong.

The publication of Dirty Politics told us much of what we thought we knew. The examples in there are from ministerial offices – but they are so familiar to what we experience from government departments.

I spoke with a public service staff member in the four months before the election to ask after an OIA. She said to me "I'm really sorry, you're not getting as much as you normally would because the election is really close."

I have had OIAs stalled in the run up to the election. If anything, they are meant to come faster. But the two months leading into the election were a drought. Since September 20, it's been chucking it down. Right now, long-delayed OIAs are turning up on a daily basis.

Or they are not. A colleague of mine, came to see me yesterday. "Have you given your talk yet?" he wanted to know. "I've got to get this off my chest."

There was a report he had sought which existed in a "draft" form until the minister's signature made it final. The OIA was filed months ago, the delaying tactics used to push it off. The response sent to the reporter gave an express written assurance that, when it was signed off, it would be released.

The election came and went. The reporter has chased it up, only to be told there will be a "general dump" of information in a few weeks or a month or so. The report will be released then, among that material, buried in a mass of information.

If you think about how that happened, it can be matched up with the law. The delay for another 20 working days, the extension for consultation, then the indefinite put-off because the information is going to be released publicly.

But it's not the spirit of the law.

The "general dump", or the soon-to-be-released-publicly, is a good example of what we see as evasions, and how we develop work-arounds. Again, I say these are what we as media see. The public service might see it differently.

The general dump started to emerge a few years ago. They push off release of information outside the timeliness of the news. Rather than talking about an issue within the time frame in which the event is happening, it gets shunted out into the future where it is less relevant. It comes, usually, late in the day, often late in the week. Thousands of pages of material dumped online. Always dumped in a form that cannot be text-searched.

Now, there may be a perception among those who handle these things that it's a good way to bury bad news. That's what we think you're doing. The number of people who will trawl through documentation looking for that single line, or match facts over long timelines, is relatively few.

It turns into a bizarre arms race.

We now use amazing analytical tools. They will take scanned PDFs and turn them into a searchable format. What's more, they will categorise, timeline, entity-match characters, dates and other players throughout the thousands and thousands of pages. It becomes a library of information which we revisit time and again.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment has gifted me such a tool with the SkyCity dump. When I got a tip a few weeks back that the SkyCity contract had changed, I could search every document publicly released and build a timeline of every reference which had been made to identify the change.

The other workarounds we are turning to are much worse than technology-enabled journalism. Sources have always been a key part of what I do, what journalists do. They are more important than ever now. I find myself talking to people about taking photographs of documents with their iPhones, sending me pictures of papers so I know what exists when I'm asking for it. I'm often less interested in getting what I've already got than I am in seeing what gets withheld.

I talk to public servants about copying papers, getting thumbdrives onto work systems, uploading files onto cloud servers – and how to do it without getting caught.

When I turned to my colleagues about this, I asked a range of questions, but there are three which really matter, because they are based on the three guiding principles of the legislation.

Does the way the public service handles your requests achieve the following:

a) Does it enable more effective participation by the public in the making and administration of laws and policies?

Sometimes

b) promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials?

No

c) enhance respect for the law and promote the good government of New Zealand?

No

A very experienced political journalist told me:

"The whole culture of the Wellington public service towards the OIA is governed by two things - the need not to embarrass your minister or your department (putting your chances of promotion or even your job at risk ) and the need to uphold the law, which public servants are more conscious of than you might think. The result is that public servants block requests for as long as they can and delete as much as they can using whatever section of the OIA that they can."

I'll tell you an exception, or an example of doing it right. It is not an exception which governs the entire agency, because there's always headquarters. There are about 9000 uniformed police staff. They are all in a position where their general orders mean they are able to respond to questions from the media on issues in which they are involved.

Police comms staff can be difficult like any other government department - although I personally think they are better.

But with so many public-facing staff, there is an acceptance staff will speak. Trying to stop them all from speaking on matters in which they are involved would be like trying to catch rain drops.

The best advertisement the police have is a constable or sergeant telling the public what they did for a living that day.

It's openness, honesty and having the courage to have back your staff on the job.

It's not always possible when the Beehive comes calling.

It's 2014 – 30 years since the OIA began working in practice, 32 years since it was passed.

There is so much that we ask for which is standard, it's hard to understand why it is not classified as people go.

Surely after 30 years of dealing with largely the same type of information, it should be known what can be withheld and what can be released.

There should be no surprises, for anyone.

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This guest post is based on a speech given by David Fisher to an audience of public officials in Wellington on October 15. Thanks to David and his employer, the New Zealand Herald, for permission to use it here.

73

“Foreign forces”, hope and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

by Nickkita Lau

Selfies have made way for Hong Kong news and images on my Facebook Timeline over the past two weeks. As a Hongkonger living in New Zealand, I have been explaining to Kiwis what our Umbrella Revolution is all about, through social media, media interviews and even the classes I’m teaching at the university.

Many of my friends and former students are actively participating in the peaceful movement in Hong Kong, demanding nothing more and nothing less than real democracy and real elections. In one of the many bilingual posts I've made, a friend commented, “Thank you. You foreign force.”

The Chinese central government has been using “internal affairs” as an excuse to fend off criticisms from the West on its handling of the situation in Hong Kong. It has framed the movement as a riot and the protesters as having been manipulated or supported by “foreign forces”, which presumably refers to foreign governments and intelligence.

Ironically, what foreign governments have done for us so far is minimal. China is one of the biggest trade partners of many Western countries including New ZealandU.S. President Barrack Obama was reportedly “watching the protests closely”, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation, but no countries have issued any real threat to China.

Our young protesters, mostly students in their teens and early 20s, understand the disadvantage they are at. They can’t survive if China deploys its Liberation Army in a violent crackdown. They only have one weapon—peace.

The moment our police fired the first round of tear gas at our peaceful protesters on the 28th of September, it shocked the world and angered Hongkongers overseas. Before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers moved to Western countries, including New Zealand, for fear of Communist rule. The emigration trend has since slowed down, but revived over the past few years because many are frustrated with the political, economic and social situations in Hong Kong.

Not only have Hong Kong homes become the most unaffordable in the world, the influx of Chinese tourists, immigrants and women giving birth in Hong Kong to get around China’s “one child policy” have put a strain on our welfare, health care, education and even public transportation systems. Many people who once loved our city lost hope and moved away.

I studied in the U.S. for almost four years. As much as I enjoyed my time there, I returned to Hong Kong after graduation because I felt strongly that I should contribute my knowledge to my city, but my passion for Hong Kong eroded over the following years to the point that it no longer felt home to me.

The Chinese presence in Hong Kong has diluted our local culture. My office was in Tsimshatsui, a shopping district popular among rich Chinese tourists. Everyday, I heard more Mandarin (the official dialect of China) than Cantonese (the mother tongue of most Hongkongers). Small local restaurants, shops and even McDonald’s have been replaced by jewellery stores, pharmacies and cosmetic stores because many Chinese don’t trust merchants or manufacturers in China. They stock up on supplies when they visit our city. Hong Kong parents even have a hard time finding baby formula sometimes.

Many merchants now cater to only Chinese tourists, incorporating or even replacing traditional Chinese (the writing system used in Hong Kong) with simplified Chinese (used in China). Some schools have adopted Mandarin as their teaching medium.

Hongkongers are ethnically Chinese. Our nationality is also technically Chinese now, but we feel very strongly that our culture and customs are vastly different from that of the Chinese. Hongkongers often correct foreigners when we are called “Chinese”. The British governed us for more than a century under the rule of law. We had an uncorrupted government. We enjoyed liberty and the freedom of speech, press, and assembly. But all these have been fading away since the handover because our current government officials and lawmakers are not elected by popular votes. They are not accountable to us, but to Chinese interests.

“This city is dying” is a quote from Hong Kong TV drama When Heaven Burns. It has since become memetic and viral among Hong Kong netizens. Before I moved to Auckland in May to pursue a Ph.D, some friends who didn’t have the means to leave told me, “Don’t come back. This city is dying.” That was exactly how I felt. I had lost hope.

The night of 28 September was a turning point. I’d just came back from a road trip when I saw numerous posts on the arrest of Joshua Wong, our teenage student leader, on my timeline. I found a live link of the protest and witnessed the police’s firing of tear gas at my own people. I’ve never felt so scared for something so distant from me. In real time, I watched how our student protesters ran away from the riot police and then courageously came back minutes later until the police fired another round, again and again. I saw the image of their bloodshot eyes and chemically burned arms. I felt powerless, not knowing what I could do to help them

A Facebook friend wrote, “Please tell your students and people in New Zealand about us.”

The next day, with the blessing of my lecturer, I informed my students what was going on and urged them to read the news, to spread the word and to learn more about what students their age were going through in Hong Kong. From that day onward, while my friends and former students are demonstrating the highest level of peace, discipline and courage in Hong Kong, holding their ground against thugs allegedly hired by the pro-Beijing camp, I’ve been promoting our cause in New Zealand. The determination our youngsters have displayed despite the attacks and threats from the government and triads made me proud to call myself a Hongkonger again.

I’m not the only one bringing international attention to the turmoil, telling everyone Hong Kong is more than ready for democracy. Hong Kong students and expatriates across the world are doing this too. The White House statement was a response to the petition created by Hongkongers living in the U.S. At least 64 rallies have been staged worldwide to support the student protesters. We are talking to international media, big and small, so that more people will hear our demands.

We do this because we understand “foreign forces” not longer only lie in governments but also with global citizens who believe in democracy, freedom and justice.

Nickkita Lau is a PhD student in Media, Film & TV at the University of Auckland. She is interview in this week's Media Take, which can be viewed here on the Maori Television website.

58

Why we should not dismiss conspiracy theories

by Matthew Dentith

Often when we think of conspiracy theories we also think of conspiracy theorists. There’s David Icke and his theory that the world is secretly controlled by blood drinking, alien shape-shifting reptiles. Then there’s Glenn Beck, who worries that the world is controlled by a combination of liberals and socialists who want to destroy America and American values. Icke and Beck are big, identifiable names in the conspiracy theory literature, and their views are rightfully treated with disdain by most of us.

Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of conflating the wackiness of some conspiracy theorists – like Icke and Beck – with the question of whether it is a rational to believe a particular conspiracy theories.

Think of it this way: it would be silly to dismiss the thesis of atheism just because we can point towards some atheists who have less than rigorous reasons for believing that God does not exist. The truth or falsity of the thesis of atheism is a fact independent of what we believe about the world. Either there are Gods or there are not.

However, what makes atheism a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold depends both on the evidence and the arguments they put forward in support of their position. In the same way, what makes a conspiracy theory a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold also depends on arguments and evidence, and it would be a mistake to dismiss someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory merely because Glenn Beck also believes it.

One person who expresses this worry is Robin Ramsay, the editor of “Lobster”, a British para-political magazine. Ramsay argues that we often confuse what we take to be problems with the reasoning of certain conspiracy theorists –  like David Icke and Glenn Beck – with issues to do with belief in conspiracy theories generally. While we can single out a sub-set of conspiracy theorists who believe that ‘nothing happens by accident’ this tells us nothing particularly interesting about whether belief in conspiracy theories tends to be irrational. After all, while conspiracy theorists who assume the existence of conspiracies without good reason certainly do exist, they are, in the end, just a subset of the larger group of conspiracy theorists.

Luckily, there is a way to respect the pejorative claim that “They’re just a conspiracy theorist”, but only if we are willing to distinguish between belief in conspiracy theories and the thesis of conspiracism. Conspiracism describes a particular problem with belief in conspiracy theories on the part of certain conspiracy theorists, or what we should properly call ‘conspiracists’ – someone who believes in the existence of a conspiracy without good reason.

Conspiracism is a folk-psychological thesis. When we say: ‘They’re just a conspiracy theorist’ what we are really saying is: ‘Look, this person believes some conspiracy theory pathologically.’ Conspiracists are not merely wrong to think some event was caused by a conspiracy – i.e. they have not just made a faulty inference – they have, rather, jumped to the conclusion a conspiracy is the best explanation. However, analysing conspiracy theories solely through the lens of conspiracism turns out to be problematic, because, after all, conspiracism assumes that belief in conspiracy theories is prima facie irrational.

This is not to say that discussions about the psychology of particular conspiracy theorists should be off-limits. Rather, we should not let folk-psychological theses about the rationality of certain types of conspiracy theorists – conspiracists – influence discussion about whether particular conspiracy theories can be warranted.

People like David Icke and Glen Beck might be the kind of people we immediately think of when we hear the term ‘conspiracy theorist’, but this does not make them typical. Rather, they are significant and thus prominent, but nothing about that significance or prominence tells us anything about how typical they are with respect to the wider group of conspiracy theorists.

Which gets us to the nub of the problem: under what conditions is belief in a particular conspiracy theory irrational, and when is belief in conspiracy theories, in general, pathological? Answering the former question does not necessarily tell us much about the latter.

So, whatever we believe about the potentially pathological psychology of conspiracists, this does not tell us anything particularly useful about the merits – or lack thereof – of individual conspiracy theories. We cannot use our skepticism of the beliefs of particular individuals like Beck and Icke to justify a suspicion of an entire field of theories, which span from the utterly mundane to the bewildering complex.

If that were the case, then Republicans of a certain stripe would be justified in thinking Anthropogenic Climate Change was not occurring merely because some Democrats believe it as a matter of dogma, rather than because they have looked at the evidence. Yet damning belief in conspiracy theories generally because of the beliefs of certain conspiracists is rife in public discourse, even though it turns out to be, at best, a mistaken reaction to the absurdity of some conspiracists and their peculiar conspiracy theories.

If, in the end, there really is an argument which justifies the common sense intuition people have that belief in conspiracy theories is bunk, it will not be based upon a view – like conspiracism – which assumes conspiracy theories are irrational. Rather, it will come out of the analysis of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ and examining in depth just how hard (or easy) it is to show that they are warranted.

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This post is adapted from chapter 3 of Matthew Dentith's forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, which will be published on November 8. Matthew speaks at TedX Christchurch on November 1.

Matthew also has a PledgeMe campaign to help him raise the money to travel to Miami to present a paper at the Conference on Conspiracy Theories at the University of Miami next March. He would welcome your contribution and offers a range of intriguing rewards to donors.

614

An Open Letter To David Cunliffe

by James Macbeth Dann

Dear David,

I want to first congratulate you on the campaign you ran. You gave it your all, and did well in the debates. I was deeply disappointed in the result that Labour got on September 20th - but I’m sure no-one feels it more personally than you do. It is in your response since that result that I have to disagree with you.

In the last leadership contest, I supported Grant Robertson, and I intend to again this time. However, once you won, I gave you my full support. I was one of the key organisers of the 2013 conference in Christchurch, which was your first big event as leader. I volunteered on the Christchurch East by-election campaign, including a couple of times when I was your driver for the day. I enjoyed talking with you in a personal capacity, away from the spin and the advisors. Through this year’s campaign in Ilam, I appreciated having you here in the electorate, and in wider Christchurch. We had a good walkabout at Bishopdale Mall. I ran interference on Gordon Dickson for you. Good times.

I gave my campaign everything, and I am sure that you did the same. We ran a two ticks campaign in Ilam. All our material had “Party Vote Labour” proudly on it. We delivered tens of thousands of pieces of paper with your face on it. But the reality, the hard truth, is that people in the electorate just didn’t connect with you. I lost count of the number of times I door knocked someone who told me they had voted Labour all their life, but wouldn’t vote for us as long as you were leader. People who would have a Labour sign - but not one with your face on it. While those examples are strictly anecdotal, the result on election night isn’t. It’s unavoidable. It’s practically the worst result in the Party’s history.

I can’t imagine how that feels. I know you’re an ambitious guy, that being Prime Minister is something that you’ve probably dreamed of since you were a kid. I know what that’s like; I’ve entertained those thoughts myself. You’ve been closer than most people will ever get. But you’ve had your shot. The Labour Party isn’t a vehicle for you to indulge your fantasy of being Prime Minister. While you might think that it’s your destiny to be the visionary leader of this country, the country has a very different vision - and it doesn’t involve you.

It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Labour party, one that is closer in both age and understanding with the people it needs to represent. It’s not just time for Grant, but also for people like me. I think I did a good job in a very difficult electorate, and would like to build on it at the next election.

However, I won't be part of a party that you lead. Not because I don’t like you, but because I simply don’t want to lose again. That’s the reality David. The people of New Zealand don’t want you to be their leader. The comparisons that you and your supporters have thrown up don’t hold water - you aren’t Norm Kirk and you aren’t Helen Clark. You’re David Cunliffe and you led the Labour Party to it’s most devastating result in modern history.

So I’ll promise you this. If you win, I’ll step aside from the party, to let you and your supporters mould it into the party you want. But in return I ask this: if you lose this primary, you resign from parliament. In your time in opposition, we’ve had you on the front bench, where you let down your leader at the most critical point of the 2011 campaign. You ran for leader and lost, then destabilised the elected leader. Then when you got your chance as leader, you led Labour a party that was polling in the mid-30’s to one that sits firmly in the mid-20’s. There is no place for you in this party anymore.

Kind regards and best wishes for the future,

James Macbeth Dann

James Macbeth Dann was the 2014 Labour candidate for the Ilam electorate.

65

Science and Democracy

by Nicola Gaston

Science has a bad habit of asking – demanding, even – to be placed in a position of power.  To be referred to as an authority on all things.  To be trusted by the public.

Not that this last is a bad thing in itself – indeed, I think it is rather important.  But if science is to be trusted by the public, then we scientists need to take that trust seriously.  What does it mean for us to insist on a place of privilege for scientific knowledge?

In the last few months, several different occurrences have focused my thinking on this topic.

First there were allegations of misconduct by CRI (Crown Research Institute) scientists at NIWA with respect to the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme. When asked to comment, I was at pains to highlight the different circumstances of those scientists employed at our universities, who have the statutory privilege of academic freedom, and that of our CRI scientists, who work in an environment in which commercial and governmental financial pressures have a much more direct impact.  Not that this affects scientific outcomes directly, necessarily – but the uneasy coexistence of public good and commercial research in our CRIs leaves their staff in a situation that is not always straightforwardly navigated. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to the transparency that might assist public understanding, either.

Secondly, the NZ Association of Scientists ran a survey of NZ scientists who were willing to share their experience with the National Science Challenges. The results were far more pointy-ended than I had expected, based on a year of discussions where everyone publicly seemed to agree on the need to make the best of a bad job.  It was a lesson in the power of anonymity in giving people a voice – a lesson reinforced by the emails I then received, in particular from CRI scientists who are, as one correspondent reported, “gagged from talking to the media on topics that might seem critical of government policy from 2 months out from the election”.

A third moment of reflection was prompted by the release of the plan for the Science in Society project: A Nation of Curious Minds. This is a really positive initiative, aimed at “developing stronger connections between science and society” and putting “special emphasis on our young people and science education”: a really laudable initiative that has come out of the process behind the National Science Challenges, and I don’t want to come across as critical in the least.  Except for just one small thing. It may even be nothing.

One of the actions recommended in this report is that the Royal Society of New Zealand develop a new code of practice for public engagement for scientists. In the fine print, we are given additional clarification that this will pertain to the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”.  Again – this sounds fine.  Except – from what I can tell, it seems that we already have this.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has a code of ethics, which has quite a lot to say about the responsibilities of scientists.  This became very clear to me in discussions that followed the original Radio NZ story on NIWA and the Ruataniwha matter – so much so, in fact, that in the NZ Association of Scientists submission on the recent National Statement of Science Investment, we recommended that the government should “amend the CRI Act to require that the boards of CRIs support the RSNZ code of ethics”. This seemed a sensible way to avoid creating new pressures on scientists who have – very fairly – a duty to their employer, while addressing issues of public confidence in science. If the RSNZ code of ethics is to be effective, it needs to be part of the scientific consciousness. The issue may only be that of public perception, but that makes it no less serious an issue: public trust in science matters.

The code of ethics has a few things to say on matters of public engagement and the communication of science.  In fact, it is explicitly based on the need to maintain public support for “work in the areas of science, technology, and the humanities”.  As such, a member is required to:

  • strive to be fair and unbiased in all aspects of their research and in their application of their knowledge in science, technology, or the humanities (Rule 2.1(2)b)
  • not present themselves as experts outside their areas of expertise (Rule 2.1(2)k)
  • only represent themselves as experts in their fields of competence as defined by their formal qualifications or other demonstrable experience (Rule 4.1(2)a)

Our responsibilities to the public who fund our work are made explicit. A member must:

  • endeavour to make the results of their work as widely available to the public as possible and to present those results in an honest, straightforward and unbiased manner (Rule 6.1(1))
  • accept that researchers working on different approaches to a problem may reach different but supportable conclusions within the context of their own research (Rule 6.2(2)d)
  • avoid attempting to influence public policy in situations where the available evidence is contradictory or inconclusive without making the state of that evidence clear (Rule 6.2(2)f)

These rules are there for good reason. They may not be perfect.[i] But do they have failings in their description of the “social responsibility of science organisations and scientists to engage with the public and policy makers based on their expert knowledge”? A case may yet be made, but for the moment, I do not think so.

So why might we need a new code of practice? Where might this be coming from? In the background to all this, we have a Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister who warns of the dangers of scientists acting as advocates. While his concerns around the importance of being an honest broker are genuine, they are not without their issues: "we need to confront the tensions between being objective and deploying our judgment."

Perhaps more to the point, the ‘honest broker’ approach does not appear to have made any impact on the PM’s willingness to listen.

In the absence of voices from the CRI community, we may need to look to university academics for examples of where science, engaging with the public and policy makers, might run into problems.  The most obvious example is Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, who was memorably called a traitor to NZ for his comments on our declining water quality. Even more significant were the Prime Minister’s comments to the BBC, where he stated that he could always provide another academic to give a counterview.

This week has provided several reminders of all these events.  In fact, all in one day, I came across evidence that the work of Dr Joy is still attracting attention, this blog post by Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist at the University of Canterbury, and the online attacks on University of Otago health researcher Dr Lisa Te Morenga, by Jordan Williams and Carrick Graham of Dirty Politics fame.

What does this all add up to? I’m not sure that I know.  Is it a coordinated anti-science campaign, or do we scientists take for granted a public faith in science that is simply not there?

What I do believe, is that any privilege we have as scientists is a privilege based on public trust in scientific activities.  Such trust should not be based on myths about scientific objectivity, nor on nonsense about us being best placed to make policy decisions: it should be based on a culture of honesty and integrity, and of open criticism and discussion of the facts without fear nor favour.  These are the values that make science work, and we (scientists) need to stick up for them.  And we (the public) need to stick up for them too.

A lot has been said recently about the importance of evidence-based policy. Science has an important role to play in informing – but not dictating – policy that is responsive to the needs of the real world. But as the dust settles in the aftermath of our most recent election, I am left thinking of the importance of evidence-based policy making – the open discussion of data, with due acknowledgement (as required by the Royal Society of NZ’s Code of Ethics) of the different values that may impinge on a research problem, and that ways in which researchers may reach different but supportable conclusions on the basis of a different research approach. 

Is this, after all, what democracy might look like between elections?



[i] I am particularly intrigued by rule 5, under which members are required to be unbiased in their evaluation of colleagues work – which rings a little hollow in the context of studies that demonstrate the pernicious nature of (unconsicious) gender bias in the scientific community. A requirement that members take account of the latest offerings in unconsious bias training might well be in order.

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Nicola Gaston is Senior Lecturer in chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, Principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.