The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima ... the Fonterra botulism scare ... the Christchurch earthquakes – in all these recent crises the role played by scientists has been under the spotlight.
What is the first duty of scientists in a crisis – to the government, to their employer, or to the wider public desperate for information? And what if these different objectives clash?
In this penetrating BWB Text, scientist Shaun Hendy finds that in New Zealand, the public obligation of the scientist is often far from clear and that there have been many disturbing instances of scientists being silenced. Experts who have information the public seeks, he finds, have been prevented from speaking out. His own experiences have led him to conclude that New Zealanders have few scientific institutions that feel secure enough to criticise the government of the day.
New Zealanders cannot be complacent, says Hendy. ‘I believe that there are rifts between our scientists, our politicians and the public that put members of our society at risk.
‘We may not have built nuclear reactors on fault lines, but when it comes to climate change, water quality, nutrition and food safety we are making decisions that are bad for us.’
Hendy believes that part of the solution may be a Parliamentary Commission for Science, which could operate in similar fashion to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It would help forge a new relationship between scientists, policymakers and the public. Says Hendy: ‘This will ensure that our science is never silenced.’
What are BWB Texts?
BWB Texts are short books on big subjects by great New Zealand writers. Commissioned as short digital-first works, BWB Texts unlock diverse stories, insights and analysis from the best of our past, present and future New Zealand writing.