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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