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Survey on the proposed Code of Public Engagement

The proposed Code of Public Engagement, which is currently being considered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, has continued to attract public attention since we went live with our survey on the subject, a couple of weeks ago. We gave the following introduction to the survey, by way of context:

There has been considerable public discussion recently of a suggestion in the Science in Society report, A Nation of Curious Minds, that science in New Zealand is in need of a 'code for public engagement'. There have been concerns raised that these changes will prevent scientists from speaking out against government policy and actions, and there is a counter view that the current Code of Professional Standards and Ethics of the Royal Society of NZ is sufficient to cover ethical behaviour by scientists.

There have also been related concerns raised about the ability of scientists employed in our Crown Research Institutes to speak publicly, an issue which the NZ Association of Scientists addressed in our submission on the National Statement of Science Investment with a recommendation that the boards of Crown Research Institutes should be required to support the Royal Society of NZ's Code of Ethics, and scientists who speak out in accordance with that code. On the other hand, despite the statutory protection of academics who accept a role as Critic and Conscience there are also concerns that funding pressures in Universities can still disincentivise public engagement.

The next NZ Association of Scientists Conference will take place in Wellington, in April 2015. The theme of the conference will be 'Going public: scientists speaking out on difficult issues'. This will be a chance to discuss the current climate surrounding scientists and the communication of science to the wider public, media and government. Our aim is to bring light to these issues and give our members a chance to share their experiences and have their say on the matter.

The survey link was circulated via our twitter account, by email to all our members, and was also circulated by the PSA to CRI scientists. Later in the week the TEU also covered the survey, which will have increased its reach into the university community.

Within the week in which the survey was live, we received 384 responses. We deliberately left space for comments throughout the survey, and received a total of 713 written responses to the different questions that we asked.  The questions to which we received most response were: 

Do you have any concerns about the suggested revision of the Code – the 'code of public engagement'?

which attracted 162 comments, and

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?

which attracted 139 comments.

Both due to the volume of responses, and the clear expectation of confidentiality contained in many of the responses, we will not be making all the comments public. They will however all be immensely useful in informing both the NZAS position on the proposed Code of Public Engagement, and our preparations for our conference on the subject of Scientists Going Public, which will take place on April 10 next year, in Wellington.

Before presenting my personal take home messages from the survey, I have a couple of disclaimers to make.  Firstly, the yes/no answers to some of the questions about the Code are not always straightforward to interpret, based on the comments that were made alongside. One clear reason for this is the multiple interpretations possible of the suggested Code of Engagement: the first Radio NZ story on the matter framed the Code as an attempt to gag scientists, while the second story later that same week discussed the use of a similar code in Japan to strengthe scientists' ability to speak out. 

Secondly, it is clear that the RSNZ Code of Ethics applies beyond science itself, while the proposed Code of Public Engagment has, so far, seemed to be science specific.  The implications of this are, at best, unclear.  I also limited myself to the RSNZ description of research fields, in which social science is included as a subset of 'science'; I apologise to those who felt excluded by its exclusion from Question 11.

With that, I'll summarise the results. Firstly, with a quick look at who completed the survey.

Only 17% of our 384 respondents were NZAS members, with 27% of them RSNZ members (2% FRSNZ). 82% chose science as their field of research, 5% technology, 6% humanities, and 7% other (mostly social science). 11% of respondents were under 35, 42% 35-50, and 46% over 50. Significantly, 55% of our respondents work in CRIs, 33% work in Universities, and the rest are spread between other research organisations, the public service, and private business.

Only 35% of our respondents were previously aware of the RSNZ Code of Ethics. This is not a large number, but is higher than the number of members of the RSNZ. On the other hand, only 13% of respondents consider that the Code does not apply to them (55% consider that it does, while 32% are unsure). The uncertainty is not surprising given the voluntary nature of the Code, but the comments provided clarify the intent of many of these responses:

Not being a member, it technically does not apply to me, but being a scientist, I agree to its priciples and naturally follow them.

and

While not a member of the Royal Society, and therefore not bound by the code, I do think that it embodies ethical best practices, which would align with my own professional views.

and even

I would have simply said yes, but I feel have a higher standard of Ethics as I work almost exclusively with Maori communities.

In essence, these comments clarify the utility of a voluntary code, which has been questioned in some parts of the debate, professional registration for scientists being impractical.

In practice, it mainly seems to be codified common sense, but it is useful to have it to refer to.

 

89% of respondents have experience in talking about their research in public.

However 40% of respondents said that the Code did not inform their approach to public engagements.  Certainly part of the reason for this is the limited awareness of the Code:

I just found out about it. Having said that, I am reading it now and the ideas within it are appropriate and worthwhile and I appreciate being aware of the document. I have abided by the ethical standards in the past in spite of not knowing about this particular document!

and 

Not specifically. It's in the background, but I don't look it up to check that what I'm going to say is in or out of specification, rather I rely on my own judgement. If there were something distinctly tricky I would seek advice - from colleagues , and I guess that might lead to 'what does the Code of Ethics say?'

 

If I were to summarise the responses to questions 1-5, I would say that the need for a Code of Public Engagement is highly questionable, given that the profile of the current Code of Ethics is not high. On the other hand, a lack of awareness of the current RSNZ Code does not appear to correlate at all with a lack of concern for ethical standards.

Questions 6, 7, and 8 touched on the implications of the suggested Code of Public Engagement for the willingness of scientists to speak out. The results indicate a large degree of uncertainty, which is clarified in many of the comments that were made.

I think a discussion and evaluation of the Code is appropriate, but the Code seems quite thorough. I would be concerned about changes being made that restricted scientists' ability to communicate freely with the media.

The RSNZ 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.

Very concerned that 'advocacy' is becoming regarded as a sin. This could easily be used against public health advocates arguing against accesibility/advertising of gambling, alcohol or fast food.

The focus of the code and document in general seems to be on encouraging scientists to engage with the public on the assumption that communication is usually a good thing so lets do more of it. For some fields of study like environmental science this might still be true but for other fields it's a rather amusingly naïve argument. Now days many CRI scientists are specifically prevented from engaging in public debate. We are told by management that staff are agents of the organisation and therefore our expressed opinions can and will be used as representations of the organisations position. Should anything contentious be said the organisation will be exposed to public ridicule, political pressure and potential legal action. Individual staff are held liable in some cases and can not only lose their jobs but be exposed to fines and prison sentences. I know people whose jobs have gone in this way so I'm not making this up. If you think scientists are both free thinkers and free talkers in NZ you're about 15 years out of date. In a nutshell science is a political arena in NZ, in a way that education is not. University staff may be free to talk but that privilege is now almost unique to them.

I think publicly funded science indeed has an obligation to reach out to the public.

A revision of the code that creates any kind of limitation to the freedom of speech of anyone in the scientific community is a matter of serious concern.

I believe that government influencing standards for science communication undermines the credibility of scientists, and opens up risk for manipulation of science for political gain.

The suggested revisions toe dangerously close to the line of requiring scientists to only agree with government or private corporation's lines, instead of being free to comment on a wide range of issues - as is the right of any human being.

 

 

I would need to see what the changes were going to be.

I would take the risk to speak out all the same...

How as a CRI scientist can I ever speak out against an industry that my CRI serves? I just cannot.

I already consider public engagement to be an unrecognised and unrewarded activity for a scientist employee in NZ. Any further restrictions in the new code will likely serve to only strengthen that view and act as a further disincentive not to engage publically.

I would like to see the establishment of an "ombudsman-like" office within the RSNZ to provide confidential advice to scientists who feel constrained in their ability to publicly speak out on issues of their concern within their area of expertise.

I already feel that speaking publicly from a science platform on politically contentious issues is a risk

I am already pressured by my employer to resist speaking to media unless our comms department have approved statements. This is going to enshrine into law a dubious practice already undertaken by some institutions.

"Public research funding bodies will review and update the knowledge translation expectations for research contracts" - we have every right to feel wary about this phrasing.

I feel that I have a freedom of speech and can use social media for anything I want to say about my research. However, it becomes scary if big corporations start attacking you. If universities are too reliant on these big companies for funding, it could negatively impact the freedom of speech a scientist has.

It would undermine the confidence and security of junior academics to speak on matters they may feel concerned about (like the policies of the government or of their own institutions) but may not be recognised as 'authorised' experts

Confirming that you have to watch how you word a question, when surveying scientists:

Nothing wrong with my willingness- I am willing to speak, but I would get into trouble if I did.

And from someone who replied "no":

But then I'm over 60 and relatively bullet proof in terms of promotion etc.

 

And finally, the answers to Question 6, which (while quite well split) were much less uncertain:

We are expressly prevented from making any comment to the public without prior approval. On contentious issues such as GMOs and plant import we are not to make any comment at all under any circumstance. That role is now exclusively the mandate of management.

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 can not be communicated. I am allowed to talk to the public on my area of expertise but not to reporters??? Very difficult to tell on the phone so get into trouble occasionally. Not new. When i was in a CRI, I had funding moved from me to another scientist after a visit from industry who were upset at the factual comments put out in a newspaper article by a scientist working in my research project.

Yes when I worked in NZ for a CRI, but not when I worked for DSIR or after I moved to a university. Back in my DSIR days we had open days for the public and were actually sent to special courses on how to talk to the media. In my CRI days I became one of the very few who was able to talk to media directly but most of my colleagues were not.

Have been advised on occasion that it would be preferable not to draw attention to some of my research that is counter to government policy

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 prohibitive. In terms of actual events where clear prevention occurred while working for a CRI, I worked out with my manager and an acting CEO that it would be appropriate to represent a environmental NGO in giving evidence to a government regulatory body that would effectively have been public (and probably newsworthy) 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, make no mistake, it isn't just the CRIs:

In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academics speaking in public on controversial issues or on issues that might impact on the reputation of the institution itself. These attempts have been in breach of the principle of academic freedom and undermine our statutory duty to act as critic and conscience of society.

We rely on Ministry of Health funding and we believe advocating for better public health responses would jeopardise this essential income stream, as our area of work is not currenly a Govt priority and consequently would be easy to cut.

Yes, I have been fearful of making controversial public comment for fear it would jeopardise funding, which would result in job loss for others in my team, even if not for me.

Literally "no" but I am fairly sure that my public advocacy has cost me funding opportunities. As a university academic, I at least can afford to not be too worried about such things and on the whole University managers have not been obstructive (although in the midst of one particularly controversial issue I did decline to take a call from my Vice Chancellor while I was in a television studio preparing to be interviewed on a live current affairs programme:-) ).

Our University VC and management have implied that we must get permission to speak publicly on certain issues but of course I take no notice of such. When Scientists allow themselves to be owned by their employers they lose all value as experts in their chosen field.

Rather I have spoken out on issues and have had Government research funding withdrawn from my research [example redacted]

[redacted] terminated my employment because of unauthorised media comment

And from people who responded "no":

not prevented, but haven't really pursued opportunities in some cases given the likely (perceived) implications.

But I have been admonished afterwards. I'm somewhat an adherent of it's better to seek forgiveness afterwards, than to be gagged beforehand.

My science has been in Academia, working on topics which are not politically or commercially controversial, so I have not been at risk of kneecapping. However, I strongly sympathise with scientists working in sensitive areas, whose research funding, or even careers, could be jeopardized 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.

But I have seen colleagues who have been strongly asked to change the outcome of their reports. And who have been bullied by more senior members of staff over a controversial issue. I have also seen work prevented on a controversial issue, because the political outcome would be potentially damning.

 

There are many comments in a similar vein to those provided above - I have used those which are most easily kept anonymous. I think summarising the full weight of the concerns that have been expressed in this survey may be beyond the scope of this blog post - but they certainly reiterate the concerns that the NZAS has been discussing, and that we will be responding to in our 2015 Conference.

I will leave you with a few comments from the final section of the survey - is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Scientists should resist any attempt to limit their right to freedom of professional opinion (which can vary widely, particularly on matters that may be controversial) and the right to express this publicly.

Regarding the notion that academics are 'speaking out' on issues for which they are not necessarily experts, this phenomenon is already self-mediated by other academics refuting their claims with sources as necessary. The power of peer review is not restricted to publishing papers and is a powerful force for quelling ridiculous ideas in the media and elsewhere. We need more incentives for scientists to speak out - not fewer, if we want our voices to be heard and our expertise to be taken seriously.

As seems to have been the norm with the National Science Challenge there has been very little consultation on the Science and Society project with relevant experts in the science community. The changes to the way scientists engage with the public that have been proposed by Sir Peter Gluckman in his report and in his media statements are naive, out-of-touch and potentially dangerous. Ultimately this seems to be about protecting the privilege of an old boys' network who want to control how and when the science community represents itself to the public.

If the PMCSA and the government are serious about facilitating science communication, as the "Nation of Curious Minds" documents suggests, then no new code of public engagement is required. Hence the suggestion that a new code IS required suggests a perceived need to go beyond the RSNZ code of ethics. To me, that implies some kind of gagging rules - and Sir Peter Gluckman's public comments support that implication. Having heard him speak on National Radio, I am really concerned about this development.

I am concerned about Gluckman's championing of the "honest broker" concept. The concept assumes either the belief or the pretense 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.

There is already too much fear and silencing of voices that seek to challange government policy. I thinkthat scientists and academics have an obligation to speak out on issues that inform public debate and challange uninformed and ideological policy and legislation.

I would advocate for the RSNZ to establish an office with the ability to adjudicate confidentially on issues where university staff believe their research funding is being compromised by their employer.

and to finish:

Thank you for your efforts to preserve the pre-conditions for an informed democracy.

Thanks for doing this survey. Based on how Canadian government scientists have been effectively silenced on things like global warming/climate change, the idea of this happening in NZ frightens me.

You are most welcome.

Thanks for participating!

Yes. this is the reality that

Yes. this is the reality that the people are prevented from putting a comment on a serious or controversial issue.

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NZAS Survey on the National Science Challenges

Sometimes a lot can happen in a few days.  

A week ago I was asked to comment on the results of an Official Information Act request, that had turned up emails sent to MBIE expressing concerns about the implementation of the National Science Challenges. I had recently participated in a discussion hosted by Our Changing World, prompted by the National Statement of Science Investment, so I was happy to repeat my previously expressed concerns.

I was amused to be quoted as saying that the money should go into the Marsden fund, given the amount of equivocation that I had prefaced that statement with.  But put simply as a choice between the Marsden Fund and the National Science Challenges in their current form, I have no trouble suggesting that the Marsden Fund is a better funding mechanism.  I explained that, in my opinion, one of the misconceptions about the Marsden Fund is that it only funds fundamental science: it actually funds a wide range of research, including applied and blue skies research, on the basis of excellence alone - and manages to cover a range of career stages and provide support for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows at the same time. However, this does not mean that the Marsden Fund can do it all: I think that one of the significant pressures on the Marsden Fund has come from the removal of NERF funding in the MBIE contestible pool, which has pushed the contestible funds well toward the industry-led end of the spectrum. As I said on Our Changing World, we need to increase contestible funds - in both Marsden, and in the types of MBIE funding that can take great ideas generated through Marsden-type research and develop them further towards application.

I received an email immediately after my most recent comments had aired, saying 

I'm pleased that you've modified your view from OCW last week, where you suggested sticking with the process for the sake of stability, to now sensibly suggest that the new money be channelled into the Marsden Fund. ...  I would like to suggest that to test Minister Joyce's perception of wide-spread support for the science challenges, that the NZAS consider running a short poll of the wider science community.

That was a week ago.  Last night, we collected the results - 290 responses - collected since posting the survey on Friday before the weekend.  It would be fair to say that the level of the response surprised me - but another email sums up the feedback I have heard:

I guess prior to the minister's comments last week, we couldn't quite believe he didn't know how flawed the process has been.

This sums it up for me.  Scientists are pretty forgiving about mistakes: making them is a large part of the job. But refusing to acknowledge that there are issues is simply not healthy.  

One of my biggest concerns is the feeling in the scientific community - which comes through in a few of the comments - that this is new money for science, and therefore we should be uncritical of the process, or we risk losing it. I can only hope that this is not a message that has come from MBIE; scientists should and do feel responsible for making certain that the best possible use is made of the taxpayer funds that support our work.  I am really pleased to see this sense of responsibility come through so strongly in the response from the scientific community in NZ - we need the public to trust us to speak up when all is not well.

Thanks to everyone who contributed - and as always, get in touch at president@scientists.org.nz if you would like to add any comments.

Nicola Gaston

 

New funding tools

Over my career I've seen a whole bunch of new funding systems. They are all well intentioned (well mostly). Each time we face at least two years of chaos where nobody knows exactly what is expected in the new grant applications. The NSC is yet another round of new funding tools, this time confounded by the problem of a "challenge" designed by committee. In five years time we'll all know what is expected of an NSC application, we'll all understand what needs to go in and what should be hidden. Some really good science will be done. But for two or three years we'll all lose time and effort and money figuring the system out. However, history strongly suggests that the NSC will actually not change the science landscape of New Zealand in any fundamental way. Scientists adapt to each new funding scheme. We all try and do the best for New Zealand and the world in spite of the funding regime. Given the cost of changing funding systems is high and given that we already have/had some excellent/adequate funding tools, then creating the NSCs would appear to serve no scientific, social nor economic purpose. That for me is the biggest problem, at a time where funding for science is cripplingly low, any new money should go into established proven funding systems, if for no other reason than to minimise the cost.

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National Statement of Science Investment

The government has just released a draft National Statement of Science Investment, which summarises the current state of the science sector in New Zealand.  It is great to see that MBIE are giving some thought to these issues.

My comments to the Science Media Centre yesterday were:

It is great to see the new National Statement of Science Investment being released today.  There have been a number of concerns in the scientific community about the rate of change in the science sector in recent years, as acknowledged today by Minister Joyce, and in particular the impact of new funding mechanisms on the success and validity of established funding mechanisms.  The distinction and relationship between the Centres of Research Excellence and the National Science Challenges is a particularly relevant example.  It is excellent that MBIE are starting to think about these issues.
The major change to the science funding system that we may see was called a ‘refinement’ of the contestable funding system by the Minister today.  It is notable that in the report it is left very open ended what this may mean: focusing funds on relevant research should not come at the cost of transparency, such as we have seen with the National Science Challenge processes.  On the other hand, the importance of ‘contest’ in supporting emerging opportunities is acknowledged.  This is exactly the loss that cutting the FRST postdoctoral fellowships has meant for science in New Zealand, and we hope that this signals a new willingness to consider the merits of a nationally competitive postdoctoral funding programme.
Minister Joyce was very explicit today that this document is out for consultation, the results of which will be left for the incoming government to deal with later this year.  I very much hope that whatever feedback is received, it is taken seriously by whatever government we then have: it is past time for us to have a broad bipartisan consensus on the importance of science funding and the transparency of its major mechanisms.  The New Zealand Association of Scientists would encourage all scientists to engage seriously with the consultation process, in the hope of putting an end to the disruptions and inefficiencies that have characterised the last few years of the science sector in New Zealand.

I would like to reinforce that last part of my comments here.  The timeline for consultation is reasonably long, and the NZAS will be putting in a detailed submission by the deadline of the 22nd of August.  I'd like to encourage all our members, and indeed all scientists in New Zealand to contribute to the NZAS submission by emailing me at president@scientists.org.nz, or contacting any member of Council.

I'd also encourage you to consider making your own submission. The form is available here, and submission of feedback is a simple process - you can simply email your thoughts to NSSI@mbie.govt.nz with or without using their suggested question and answer format.

At the launch of the document, Steven Joyce left open the possibility of significant increases in the Marsden Fund, but claimed that he had not been hearing requests for it to be increased.  He also made clear that he would need to hear suggestions of where any reallocation of funds would be made from: would we be happy to see the Marsden Fund doubled at the cost of a reduction in MBIE contestable funding?  In the funding of the National Science Challenges, or of the PBRF funding pool?

Let us know your thoughts - ideally we would like to get your feedback by the start of July in order to compile a detailed and useful submission.  There is room for us to hope that our ideas will be incorporated in the final version of this strategic document - I noted with some amusement that a phrase from an email I sent Steven Joyce on the 7th of March:

"The value of postdocs to the science sector is, I believe, that they perform the translational and interdisciplinary work in the university system that underlies innovation."

is reproduced almost verbatim on page 68 of the draft document. Some small sign of progress?

Nicola Gaston

NZAS Conference 2014: Science and Society

The annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) took place in Auckland this year, organized by Siouxsie Wiles and Kate Hannah of the University of Auckland.  It launched on Friday night with a public screening of the Thin Ice documentary on climate change, and concluded Saturday evening with the presentation of the NZAS medals and awards from 2013.

Our annual conference is an excellent forum for the promotion of the key goals of the NZAS: to promote the public discussion of science, to defend scientific fact, promote intellectual freedom, and encourage scientific excellence.

We chose to take ‘Science and Society’ as our focus for constructive discussion this time around: the 11th National Science Challenge that was handed back to government by the peak panel that chose the Challenges.  Science and Society: the need for government to facilitate greater uptake of scientific knowledge and literacy within a changing society: whether we think of that change in terms of our climate, or in terms of the ever-extending scope of our technologies. 

This challenge is so deeply engrained in the goals of our association, that we thought we should take the opportunity to reflect on what we can do as scientists, and to hear from those who already work in this space and who have developed significant expertise in communicating science and engaging the public. Perhaps part of the challenge for government, I suspect, is to work out how they can better support these people with practical expertise within the frameworks of our educational and science systems.

The day started with a Plenary address from Matheson Russell, a philosopher at the University of Auckland.  In light of the current Education Amendment Bill, which aims to change the structure of representation on University Councils, it was very fitting to start the day with a reminder of the Critic and Conscience responsibilities of Universities, both their staff and students, as outlined in the Education Act. The talks that followed included an exploration of Mātauranga Māori as it relates to scientific research, by Dan Hikuroa; a history of the treatment of madness and the difficulty of research on social issues, by Cathy Colebourne; and stories of the future gleaned from intermingling art and science in outreach with children, from Renee Liang. The idea that scientific discovery can have unwanted social impacts was very effectively presented by Colin Gavaghan, as he discussed the potential consequences of developing a neurophysical or genetic explanation for behaviour, through the potential legal mitigation of criminal behaviour.

After lunch, in contrast, we had a line up of some of New Zealand’s most expert practitioners of communication of and within science: from working with kids and engaging them in discovery (Chris Clay, MindLab), to Fabiana Kubke, who introduced the audience to Creative Commons Licences, and challenged the audience to make their science accessible to the public.  Paul Gardner (UoC), with a talk titled ‘Outreach for the Introvert’ demonstrated ably that introversion need not be a barrier to communication; Peter Griffin, of the Science Media Centre, presented his tips on how to work effectively with the media; and Rhian Salmon (VUW) challenged the scientists in the audience to take their outreach more seriously: to collect data and evaluate achievement.  Shaun Hendy, the immediate Past-President of the NZAS, wrapped up the talks for the day with an overview of his experiences of engaging scientists with society.

The day is not well represented by the list of talks alone.  The contribution made by all the attendees was fantastic, with wide ranging and thought provoking discussion at the end of every talk, including several notable conributions by students.  This set us up perfectly for the panel discussion at the end of the day, in which we came back to the Science and Society Challenge that is being worked on by government.  Our panelists were the Chief Science Adviser to the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE), Jim Metson; Rebecca Priestley of the Science in Context programme at VUW, Russel Norman, co-leader of the Green Party, and Tracey McIntosh, of Nga Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori research centre.

Each panelist articulated the importance of the Science and Society challenge based on their own expertise and experience, with critiques of the process to date including comment on the inadequacies of the deficit model, and an exploration of the concept of privilege as it relates to the scientific hierarchy of knowledge.  It was Russel Norman who dared to say what none of the scientists quite felt able to: that actually, science does not occupy a place of particular privilege in a country where the Prime Minister claims to be able to find a scientist to say whatever he wants, at will.

But does any of this discussion translate into outcomes?  The issues covered at our previous two conferences are still with us.  There is still no nationally competitive funding for postdocs, since the FRST postdoctoral fellowships were disestablished in 2011.  We have pointed out that while postdocs will still exist in established labs that can afford to fund them, there is nothing in the system to incentivize the movement of postdocs into new areas of research, which limits innovation. The minister still believes that the number of postdocs has not reduced: I would like the numbers to be compared for contracts of a minimum of two years duration, below which a postdoctoral position has limited value for career progression, and very little attractiveness compared to fellowships available overseas.  And this is the key point that has still not been addressed: in an international market, we need to be attracting ambitious young people back at the postdoctoral stage of their careers.  I don’t make this argument solely on behalf of academia, where we can attract early career researchers back into academic jobs, but for start up companies looking for people with independent research skills: surely we can do more to develop those skills here?

Last year we took as our challenge the need to talk about the value of science from a non economic perspective, in response to the persistent creep of our science funding mechanisms towards commercially oriented research.  The idea of science for public good, we found, was often better articulated by those outside of science than by those within it.  Commercially oriented research, with the potential for short term returns, is of course valuable to our economy: but we should worry about moving in the direction of guaranteed short term returns, with the current increase in emphasis on industry co-funding of science.  This starts to beg the question as to whether what we are funding is still science. 

This year, one could say we were spoilt for choice of topic.  There is a lot of change ongoing in our science sector: the disestablishment of one of our CRIs and the impending closure of a major campus at another; the creation of Callaghan Innovation, which retains only 80 or so of the 300 scientists who worked at Industrial Research, and which has effectively become a funding agency; the National Science Challenges – though about these we still know very little.  The first one, on High Value Nutrition, has been announced, but with very little more detail that the original title we were given over a year ago.

The last word, on all these matters, and indeed on the topic of the conference, was given to our award winners for 2013.  After a brief presentation from the Minister of Science, Steven Joyce, who promised – tantalizingly – that the National Statement of Science Investment will be coming out soon, the awards were presented and each Medal or Award winner was given the opportunity to speak about their science.

Dr Simon Lamb, the Science Communicators Award winner, discussed his own personal motivations for spending six years on a documentary about climate change: saying that in the end, he simply wanted to be able to tell his daughter one day that he had done what he could.  It was a refreshing counterexample to the motivations cynically ascribed to scientists in the public sphere.

Dr Noam Greenberg, the winner of the Research Medal, gave a very thoughtful presentation of his work in the mathematics of computability; going as far as writing on the whiteboard, in a very thorough and well considered effort to communicate a very abstract field of work.

Our team of Shorland medalists from Landcare Research were represented by Dr Graham Nugent, who spoke about the great impact of their practical work in the area of biodiversity: from trapping pests, to understanding the toxicology of 1080 and other poisons.  It was an excellent demonstration of the importance of the teamwork and sustained effort in public good research that our Crown Research Institutes support, and was concluded with a comment to the effect that good applied research of this kind is undervalued in New Zealand.

A contrasting comment came from the Marsden medalist, Professor Barry Scott, from Massey University.  He spent much of his time reflecting on the scientists that he had mentored over his career, with laudable awareness of their current quandaries, including the difficult situation faced by women in science in Japan.  However one of his final concerns was the decreasing value placed in New Zealand on the ‘currency of science’: publications. 

While these two observations from our medalists initially seemed contradictory, I felt that they are in fact experiences that arise from a common concern: the shift in our funding system towards science with short term commercial value – which is to say, away from a system in which both applied and fundamental projects could be assessed with respect to their quality alone.  There is a common confounding factor in both cases: will this project make money?

I’d like to finish my thoughts on the day on a positive note, and I have a wealth of material to choose from, based on emails and comments from the attendees.  The following three quotes are representative of feedback I have received today, all from first time NZAS conference attendees.

“I very much enjoyed the conference and it made me realise that I was not alone in the way I viewed many aspects of science”

“It was so exciting to meet other scientists and hear talks that have the same values and principles and passion as mine.”

“I am keen to re–engage with the science community, first step will be joining the NZAS.”

I am very grateful to Kate Hannah and Siouxsie Wiles for making this year’s conference such a great success.

Nicola Gaston

President's Blog

Well done. I see that the next generation has well and truly picked up the ball.

From an old guarder - Janet Grieve

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Putting the strategy in science funding: a National Challenge

The National Science Challenges are underway.  Requests for proposals are out for the second tranche of the Challenges, with proposals due at the end of April, while the status of the first tranche proposals remains unclear.  In my first column as President of the NZAS, I referred to the current state of progress of the challenges: on the perceived lack of transparency of the process, and on the lack of strategic oversight of the positioning of the Challenges within our funding system.

The stated objectives of the National Science Challenges are highly laudable.  It is impossible to argue with the emphasis on collaboration, issues of real importance to New Zealand, and the attempt to build public engagement!  But the original objectives are not the reality that the Challenges must be judged on.

When scientists at different institutions have widely varying incentives for engagement, does the best science get funded, or is there a risk that funding is captured by those with most time to contribute?  In this move towards a more decentralized funding system, surely there is a greater need for transparency, rather than less. 

There are significant differences in the way that the different Challenges are being managed – how do the steering groups know that they are talking to the right people?  How do new arrivals and early career researchers get involved?  All these issues remain unclear.

The Challenges look to become our default national science strategy over the next decades: a “National Statement of Science Investment” was promised when the Challenges were announced, but we are still waiting.

The impacts on CRI core funding remain unclear going forward.  How are the Challenges supposed to work with, and how do they differ from the Centres of Research Excellence?   What will the long-term effects be on contestable MBIE funding?  Engagement with the Challenges is motivated, for most of the scientists involved, by the prospect of funding: should we be concerned that decisions made on such a basis will have strategic implications?

The NZ Association of Scientists is looking to provide a commentary on the current changes in the science system, as happened in earlier science reforms. We aim to provide reliable information to our members, and to the broader public. We are looking to canvas opinion from our membership and across the science sector, to produce a summary of the thoughts of scientists on the development of the National Science Challenges, as they move into the contracting phase.

Please let us know your thoughts: comment here, or email me privately at president@scientists.org.nz.

Nicola Gaston