Science has no time for politics


In 2011 on B.B.C. programme called HardTalk hosted by Stephen Sackur, Prime Minister John Key was asked about fresh water quality issues. Mr Sackur asked Mr Key if New Zealand’s environmental standards had slipped after a string of controversies including the sacking of an elected local council over water management issues (among others). Mr Key came out firing, insisting our standards were fine and that New Zealand is “100% pure”.

When Mr Sackur challenged Mr Key on that point with data from well respected researcher Dr Mike Joy, Dr Joy’s data was dismissed as not being totally true.

And over the years a wealth of research and policy based on that research has accrued in New Zealand pointing to unsustainable dairy farming harming our fresh water resources. And as a way of hiding from the truth, the call for “further research” has gone out.

But globally there is an even bigger problem. The sheer scale of human consumption has altered the planet to a point where scientists have concluded that an entire epoch in the geological record has ended and that the new one will have a strong human input.

It is a truth that cannot be changed:

Science has no time for politics, something politicians are often loathe to admit.

We undermine our quest as human beings to better understand the world around us when we allow politicians to silence scientists trying to communicate their findings to the world.

When the National Institute of Water and Atmospherics fired Jim Salinger, one of the most eminent scientists in New Zealand it was roasted alive. People were disgusted with his silencing for electing to tell people about the findings of his latest research without consulting his bosses. But N.I.W.A. to its considerable credit learned its lesson and is now one of the better communicators of science in New Zealand.

When scientists working on earthquake research were silenced, people again were infuriated. With a live firing aftershock sequence firing off every magnitude number up to 6.4, with sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage being done, of course people wanted to know what was going on. With people fearing for their lives, not knowing how or when the aftershock sequence – which threw convention out the window on 13 June 2011 with a magnitude 5.7 followed 80 minutes later by a magnitude 6.4 – of course scientists wanted to communicate as best as they could their interpretation of what was happening. Their professional reputations and credibility as researchers depended on it.

Which is why the Department of Conservation making decisions on apparently ill founded information is all the more disturbing. As the Government agency tasked with looking after our conservation estate, D.O.C. is expected by the public to promote and advocate for the national and forest parks, areas of significant scenic and natural value. Not surprisingly therefore people are upset and angry about some of its recent decisions that fly in the face of what it is meant to be advocating for.

One example is the Mackenzie Basin irrigation project that is trying to convert a naturally semi-arid part of New Zealand into a false green mass of paddocks that look completely out of place. A reporter for The Press was sent photograph by a D.O.C. researcher showing a large pipe carrying water for irrigation that crosses conservation land with significant values. He was then suspended and has since left It also ignores the effects of dairying in the tributaries of the upper Waitaki, which are seeing spikes of nitrogen inputs that reduce the water quality in an area that is big on water based pursuits – boating, fishing, and so forth.

Was the Department of Conservation scared of a political backlash? Perhaps so, but it should not be. New Zealanders are waking up to the realization that we need to do more to protect the environment and the ecosystems that sustain our flora and fauna. Or those species will join many more that already gone in the mass extinction currently in progress.

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