Nicola Gaston on science and democracy

In a guest post for the Public Address blog network, Dr Nicola Gaston, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, outlines her thoughts on public trust in scientists and a potential new code of practice for public engagement.

Credit: Flickr / Terry Johnston
Credit: Flickr / Terry Johnston

An excerpt (read in full here):
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”.

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