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The high public cost of muzzling scientists – Shaun Hendy

Posted in Reflections On Science on May 9th, 2016.

Ahead of the launch of his new book Silencing Science, Prof Shaun Hendy has written an opinion article for the Dominion Post. You can also see an interview with Prof Hendy on the Q + A show, and read an Q&A with the New Zealand Herald’s Jamie Morton. 

EarthquakeAn excerpt of the article (read in full here):

The high public cost of muzzling scientists

To whom is the first duty of a scientist in a crisis – to the politicians who fund them, the employer who pays them, or the wider public, desperate for information? In the course of writing my new book, Silencing Science, I have found that scientists’ duty to the public often comes last.

The Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes, for example, put New Zealand science on the spot. Cantabrians wanted to know why them? Why now? And what might happen next?

These were not easy questions for scientists to answer. There was a lot that wasn’t known about the geological structures that lay below the city, and even in the best of times, the forecasting of aftershocks is an uncertain business.

But it was much more difficult than it should have been. Scientists at Crown Research Institute GNS Science were focused on briefing officials to ensure that government had the best information. Others found themselves challenged by officials when they tried to disseminate aftershock forecasts, lest they undermine the recovery. Communications were supposed to be channelled through the joint emergency operations centre, but science had a low priority and the centre became a bottleneck.

These problems extend well beyond the Canterbury earthquakes.

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