By Prue Hyman
In my December column I handed out plaudits to those supporting free speech, academic freedom and whistle-blowing in New Zealand against government and media attacks.
Today I return to related aspects of this erosion of democracy, focusing on the climate of fear preventing many scientists and community organisations from speaking out.
One of the four worthy aims of the July 2014 document ‘A Nation of Curious Minds: He Whenua Hirihi I te Mahara’ was that of “encouraging the science sector to be more engaged with the wider community.” This to ensure that “New Zealanders are more aware of the relevance of scientific research and the new technologies and innovations it provides.” (http://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/kiwi-curiosity-heart-science-engagement)
Developed by government departments in conjunction with Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, the practical development of this aim was to be through the development of a code of practice on public engagement for scientists led by The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ).
Gluckman — ‘encourage scientists to speak out’
Gluckman said that “a new code would encourage scientists to speak out, and give them guidelines for doing so” – but one could reasonably accuse him of doublespeak (or in the original George Orwell version doublethink) on this ‘encouragement’ and instead expect restrictive guidelines, with him adding that “some scientists tend to exaggerate what they know and forget to state what they do not know.” (http://teu.ac.nz/2014/10/code-silence-scientists/) He also warned about their speaking beyond their narrow area of expertise.
Certainly if we examine the reactions of many scientists to the proposed code, there is substantial disquiet.
- First, there is already a Royal Society Code of Conduct which seems unobjectionable.
- Second, few scientists know about this, and yet most are strongly driven by ethical considerations.
- Third, many of them already fear speaking out and consider that the proposed code of practice may make things worse.
All this according to a survey of scientists carried out by the New Zealand Association of Scientists, attracting 384 responses within a week. (http://www.scientists.org.nz/blog/2014/survey-on-the-proposed-code-of-public-engagement) 40% of those responding already felt gagged because of management policy or concern over loss of funding, while others were concerned that this could get worse.
Responses have been telling
Many quotes from the responses were telling, such as: “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.”
Similarly many community organisations including NGOs heavily dependent on government funding and contracts are fearful of the consequences of speaking out where they disagree with current policies.
Sandra Grey (photo alongside), and Charles Sedgwick have done excellent work surveying community groups and report that half of respondents feared that if they spoke out their funding would be cut, compared with a quarter in 2008. Some had experienced threats or have contracts with gagging clauses.
A 2013 paper on their work refers to the nature of NGOs’ relationship with the state including contracting contributing to an environment in which debate is discouraged or barely tolerated.
Problems under both main parties
“The trajectory has been to control through contracts, administrative requirements, and efficiency demands,” with the result that the emancipatory role of community and voluntary sector organisations as the voice for marginalised groups is often subverted.
And this has occurred under BOTH main political parties, with engagement in debate welcome only if it avoids challenging the nature of the state and existing elite structures. (http://www.victoria.ac.nz/sacs/pdf-files/Fears-constraints-and-contracts-Grey-and-Sedgwick-2014.pdf)
One piece of good news
I want to finish this sorry story with one piece of better news. The rules governing registration of charities and their interpretation have also been restrictive on policy advocacy, even where this was totally subsidiary to service delivery.
It successfully fought this decision and has recently won a case in the High Court against Inland Revenue and the Charities Registration Board. IRD had imposed taxes for the two years NCW was de-registered, but the Court reversed this and ordered backdating of the re-registration.
Thank heavens for some sense somewhere in the system!