An abridged version of this blog post appeared in the University of Auckland’s Uninews on June 4th 2015.
Two years ago, towards the end of my term as President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, a journalist asked me an astonishing question. News of the possible detection of harmful bacteria in a batch of Fonterra’s milk powder had just broken, yet the media was struggling to find any experts who would speak about the tests. The journalist who called me wanted to know whether scientists had gone quiet because the government was muzzling them.
I was surprised. The government has no ability to silence the science community. Although the government owns the Crown Research Institutes, they are not subject to the restrictions that the public service face on communicating with the media. And the responsibility of academic scientists to speak out is spelled out in the Section 162 of the Education Act, where it is made clear that we have a role as the “critic and conscience of society”. For the most part, scientists are free to speak out as they choose.
In practice, things are not so simple. In the case of the milk powder scare, many scientists who did have the expertise felt conflicted through their relationships with Fonterra, the Ministry of Primary Industries, or AgResearch. The silence that resulted meant that uninformed, fringe voices began to get airtime.
One of the few experts who did speak out was University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Writing on her well-known blog, Infectious Thoughts, she provided one of the very few scientific perspectives on the story and debunked some of the wilder theories being aired in the media. With this, Dr Wiles quickly became the go to person for the media, and finally, some sound science started appearing in news reports.
Like many researchers who have stepped up in a crisis, Dr Wiles asked herself that if she didn’t do it, who would? Yet, as she noted in her address to the New Zealand Association of Scientists Conference, Going Public, in April, the reaction from many of her colleagues was far from positive. To some, it seemed that she had spoken out of turn. And sadly, as we learned from other delegates at the conference in April, her experiences are far from unique. It seems that the scientific community can be its own worst enemy.
Communicating with the public, whether through the media or otherwise, is often seen as a less than serious pursuit for scientists – something best left for the twilight of one’s career, or to be attempted in the lead up to that crucial funding round. Time on twitter is time away from the lab, a trade-off that no true scientist – god forbid, one early in their career – should be prepared to make. And when an articulate young scientist upstages us in the media, it can ruffle our greying feathers.
Yet communication is a skill, and working with the media requires a great deal of commitment. The scientists who we hear from in public are those that have chosen to work hard at these skills and those who have put the sustained effort needed to build relationships with journalists. It is difficult work, made more difficult at times by the lack of recognition by colleagues or institutions.
It is also important to understand that the media has changed. The business model that supported public interest journalism for centuries is on the brink of collapse. Only Radio New Zealand can support specialist science reporters these days. If you are not pro-active in working with the media, they will often not have the time or resources to come knocking. As Fiona Fox, head of the UK Science Media Centre, puts it “the media will do science better when scientists learn to do the media better.”
If we want a better informed public in New Zealand – and dare I say it, a public prepared to put more tax dollars into university research – then the least we can do is support our colleagues who are working hard to bring this about.