The announcement of charges laid against a science institution involved in advising emergency response in relation to the 2019 Whakaari White Island eruption has shaken many in the New Zealand science community, yet scientists have also felt reassured by the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor's (PMCSA’s) blog post released on the day charges were announced. The PMCSA provides a timely reminder of the paramount importance in emergencies of free and frank scientific advice to decision makers, and one can note that the advice provided must also be fast and unfiltered yet expert and careful.
Increasingly, our science community and wider public look to the PMCSA for steering on difficult issues that go beyond her central role of coordinating science advice to government, which is the focus of the blog post. Many are surprised that the PMSCA isn’t able to comment further in this case, but in a small nation it is inevitable that any important person or office will sometimes have conflicts of interest or confidential involvement that prevents public engagement. It is important for others with relevant expertise to fill the void.
I do that here, and point out that there are two additional issues that need consideration in this case. First, the success of advice to government also depends on public trust in science and government institutions, and this requires an adequate level of public and media access to scientists as events unfold.
In addition, a unique and unusual second factor has now appeared. Prolonged and possibly expansive silencing associated with the as yet undefined scope of Worksafe's prosecution of a science institution could create a cone of silence and confusion around the same areas of scientific expertise that need to be called on in an emergency. So far, the apparent silence is worrying with only one university academic, Prof Shane Cronin, commenting and appearing widely in the media. Comments available from Prof Tom Wilson help on key issues, but many other voices are missing.
To help keep New Zealand as safe as possible, we can ensure a public conversation is occurring about the free flow of scientific information and advice in emergencies ranging from pandemics to earthquakes and eruptions. It should consider how science can best provide advice and public information, but can usefully extend to whether scientific expertise is sufficiently involved in the funding, management and governance of our science institutions. Such a conversation will have to be separate and hypothetical to avoid the cone of silence around the Whakaari White Island investigations.
In this case, we need to keep in mind that hypothetical does not mean irrelevant. New Zealand remains at high risk of natural hazard emergencies that can occur at any time.