Jeanette questions Salinger sacking

By hiding behind the public service rules the minister of Research, Science and Technology has shot himself in the foot. What seemed like the safest path to a new minister may in the end prove the most embarrassing. Tuesday, with my question in the House, I tried to give Wayne Mapp an opportunity to express some concern at NIWA’s sacking of Dr Jim Salinger and undertake to make more enquiries. He chose not to.

The rules for ministers say that employment matters are the province of the Chief Executive and his boss, the board. The minister should not interfere. It’s a good rule. But like most rules, slavish observance of it in all circumstances can make you look silly.

Jim Salinger is perhaps, to the public, NZ’s best known climate scientist. He is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a recipient of its collective Nobel prize in 2007. He is President of the Commission for Agricultural Meteorology at the WMO and an authority on the impacts of climate change on agriculture in Australia and New Zealand. His 200 published papers span the 30 year period when the world has been struggling with climate science and he is a recipient of the New Zealand Science and Technology Medal for communicating science. Many will have heard him on radio and TV commenting on the latest climatological information and its significance for our lives.

Professor Stephen Schneider, international climate expert and professor at Stanford, describes Jim as “the go to person for credible information on the climate of New Zealand and the world at large”; “a world class climatologist” and “the respected voice of NZ on all things climate change related”.

Yet on Thursday last he was sacked, not for bad science, but for communicating good science. Not for attacking government or NIWA policy, but for sharing the information in his area of expertise with the public of New Zealand – oh, without going through the right channels of his organisation. His crime was entirely procedural. Probably very irritating to his bosses who have to run the organisation, but hardly a crime against the public good.

The news has already been reported by Nature and incredulity is sweeping round the science community.

There are some who want to see this as a government inclined towards climate change denial trying to silence a scientist whose work continues to pile up the evidence to the contrary. I think this is a wrong analysis. It seems to me much more to be the insistence of a bureaucracy on procedures and channels that have nothing to do with good science and everything to do with control; versus a scientist impatient with bureaucracy. I simply don’t believe the government itself is trying to silence him.

But the fact that some take this interpretation is very dangerous to the government, and to New Zealand’s international reputation as a country of free speech and excellent science. That is why the minister has to step in, regardless of the rules.

Tuesday in the House I asked the Minister, “Is there ever a point where an employment issue justifies his intervention as Minister because of its potential effects on the quality of science and on New Zealand’s international reputation” and was this such a point? He replied that he had been briefed by the Chief Executive and the chair of the board and had advised them that it was not a matter for the minister.

What could he do, within the rules?

He could invite them back again, and ask for an assurance that all employment procedures had been followed to the letter. He could discuss with the board their science communications strategy. He could make it very clear that their jobs are on the line if they lose an employment case. He could make a statement about how much the government values our scientists.

I suspect he may come to regret not doing any of this.

John Key said in a speech in 2005 that he didn’t want NZ to keep exporting scientists and importing taxi drivers. This case won’t help him realise his dream.

Here’s the video of my question in the House:

33 thoughts on “Jeanette questions Salinger sacking

  1. Oooookay! I’ll bite. Satire, right? Wayne Mapp’s response was chicken? His answers were as hard to get as chicken at Popeyes? Pretty subtle Jeanette!
    (Or – the wrong YouTube link?)

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  2. …so he did the right thing at got sacked?…democracy in action again; in Australia Climate Change (AGW) has been accepted for 20 years – the US are currently debating which cities to save from Ocean Rise and the Kiwi’s are still argueing if anything is happening. Yeah Right.
    I’m sure Mr Salinger will find himself wanted and needed by people overseas, who value his work – he’ll do well to get away from Ludds Inc.
    What do the Brethren say about all this? Anyone?

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  3. I understand Dr Salinger spoke to the media after he had been instructed not to do so. For years, Dr Salinger was the local and international media’s “go-to-guy” for sound data on climate change. He had built up sturdy relationships with many people. A person in this role can’t just stop – there has to be a transition period and flexibility. In this case, NIWA’s actions are self-destructive and indicate poor systems and management.

    I agree with you and don’t buy the conspiracy theory that he was punished for speaking the truth about the climate. More likely, there is a bully boy culture in the senior management at NIWA that can’t stand it when someone doesn’t immediately “jump to” when given instructions.

    Be interesting to see if this ends up in the employment courts.

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  4. Hallelujah?
    Always a good start, but what else ( repeat dose I suspect )
    – BLiP: Would you really want Geoff all over you like a wet fish for giving us all the good oil?
    Forbidden to Speak you say? Wot? In New Zealand?
    Right after Anzac Day too – there’s Grandad rollin in his grave – forbidden to speak did you say?
    O My God …

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  5. What else Mark?
    Close the door on the way out, Mr Salinger, to keep out the chill winds of reality

    You can tell I’m guessing, not being privy to intra-Brethren conversations, but it’s fun to speculate. Why not ask the Grand High Enlightened Vessel Guy himself? Some of them at least must keep an eye on the Frogblog. I know they read my ‘Letters to the Editor’.

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  6. Jarbury: Well it does make one wonder why he was suddenly instructed to no longer talk to the media…

    Its got something to do with NIWA setting up a “clearing house” for all public comment. Apparently, in the first instance, all requests for comment are to be directed to the clearing house where they will be sorted and allocated to particular staff who will be briefed on what to say, thus ensuring a consistent “message” is delivered and NIWA’s “brand” sheltered from some pottty boffin going off half cocked and managment not finding out until the next day’s headlines.

    In short, PR bollocks and protecting against information being given away when it could be sold.

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  7. Well, that’s what the fifth estate is for. Our journalists are sitting at desks hoping someone will ring with a story (must get round to that).
    Some o them should shuck the Office and get out to NIWA for some live interviews, some REAL questions – we are paying for them in more than one way.
    I nominate Geoff to Name Names and for Te Bro to write down answers as he sees fit.Then again – I’m with Sapient on these things – most people are idiots.
    Sometimes this worries me. Thank God for Faith Brethren!
    There is No Frog But Frog….etc etc…

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  8. I shudder with recognition of what is happening here, and its alarming implications for our future.

    Down the imported-from-the-USA “PR” / Business / Corporation track we go!
    The scientists are to stay in the back room while the “expert” PR people and the minders speak and “spin” on behalf of the Organization/Corporation (receiving positions and salaries to enhance their status).

    What a shame that the fledgling USA chose English rather than German as its official language way back then.

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  9. What are you talking about?

    We’ve been hearing exclusively from the Wellington PR Department for the past nine years…..

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  10. Indeed!
    Pete – Wgtn can make noise, but it cant shut down other points of view, it’s why Geoff wants your name you slippery fisch!
    Sorry Eredwhen -= the US took a long time to join both WW1 & WW2 Dances – Why? Because they were weighing the value of jopining Good old Germany instead – they preferred Adolf to Joe 4 sure.
    Too bad Ol’ Adolph went Crazy With It hey? A lot of People in the US and England kind of admired him – why? because the trenches of WW1 had taught Communism to the French, the English, Italians, Spanish,Germans (Russians of course) Kiwi’s I’d imagine….and as we all know, Communism was the biggest threat to te boss’s hubcaps ever!
    The financial ‘system’ won’t recover until a sufficiently brisk enema has been administered (could be the crack Frog heard earlier…)

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  11. BP …

    Yes, the rot has set in …
    Increasing numbers of slick “PR” people have appeared on the scene over recent times taking unnecessarily large salaries to do what is already done well (but fortunately not exclusively, especially when well respected experts like Jim Salinger are (were?) available, articulate, and doing a superior job!)

    I mourn their “disuse”, and strongly dislike the imported USA inspired plastic imitations that are scheduled to replace them.

    … but then, the pseudo “communications experts” didn’t ask us !

    (I taught “Communications” throughout ChCh Polytech for 20 years, and believe that in most situations the “doers” are better at explaining their area of expertise than even the best trained parrots … especially those parrots with an underlying agenda!)

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  12. >>Yes, the rot has set in …

    I’m for less government, myself…..

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  13. greenfly Says:
    April 30th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    > You can tell I’m guessing, not being privy to intra-Brethren conversations, but it’s fun to speculate. Why not ask the Grand High Enlightened Vessel Guy himself? Some of them at least must keep an eye on the Frogblog.

    Their religion prohibits them from using computers, so they can’t check. I wondered if their religious objection to using the internet was the reason why there were so many errors in their pamphlets.

    Then again, maybe their religion doesn’t prohibit them from employing someone else to print out stuff from the internet for them to look at.l I know it prohibits them from voting or enlisting in the army, but doesn’t prohibit them from running ads to encourage other people to vote for a government that will spend more on the army.

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  14. I actually don’t think this is anything to do with climate change as such. It is more to do with the culture at NIWA, an obsession with process over results, and the petty power play of the small minded and mean spirited bosses who find their little power fiefdoms threatened.

    I had a similar run in with NIWA when I was working at the ministry for the environment and came across a cabinet paper from MAF advising that the government do nothing about a fall webworm outbreak in the autumn because it would only have one generation a year in Auckland. My post-doctoral research had been on fall webworm and I knew they had 2-3 generation times per year in Japan, and so would be likely to have the same in warmer Auckland.

    My own employer dismissed my concerns stating the cabinet deadline for comment had passed, and they were not pleased when I pointed out that insects don’t tend to respect cabinet deadlines when breeding, and besides the Biosecurity Act states it is everyones duty to inform the authorities if they have reason to believe an incursion could be imminant.

    I asked NIWA for Auckland temperature data for Auckland so I could have some hard facts to present to MAF on generation times, but NIWA immediately told my employer, who censured me for spoiling their relationship with MAF, even though MAF would never have known if NIWA hadn’t told them.

    In this case as now, the problem was that NIWA do not like anyone to threaten establishment power structures. They care nothing about science, global warming or biosecurity, or anything else other than their own fragile pathetic little egos.

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  15. kiaora mo tena kiore kotahi!
    The fall webworm? How did that threat pan out?

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  16. the minister is acting like a hedgehog: he has rolled himself into a ball. The labour woman came closest to unraveling him.

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  17. He replied that he had been briefed by the Chief Executive and the chair of the board and had advised them that it was not a matter for the minister.
    . . . .
    He could invite them back again, and ask for an assurance that all employment procedures had been followed to the letter. . . . . . He could make it very clear that their jobs are on the line if they lose an employment case.

    This runs directly in the face of the Employment Relations legislation. The Minister does not employ a Chief Executive, and a Chairman does not process a Personal Grievance case through the Employment Relations mediation or court processes.

    While I have issue with what was done to Mr. Salinger, as long as it was done correctly it is absolutely within the rights of the Chief Executive. Most enterprises, public and private, ban their employees from speaking to the press as a representative of the enterprise without express permission to do so on a case-by-case basis. An employee who wilfully goes against such a ban must know, unless they are intellectually challenged, that they run a risk of censure and disciplinary action.

    Should we scrap the ERA, or have politicians decide who should be exempted from enterprise-wide policies? I don’t think so, and nor should the Green Party.

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  18. Strings, like you say:

    ” . . . who should be exempted from enterprise-wide policies? . . . ”

    Enterprise-wide policies are essential. The implementation of such, however, must be done “correctly. I would sugest, that the sudden implentation of policies that cut across existing practises, coupled a “broken-windows” approach to problems during teething, is not a correct approach.

    I wouldn’t know if Dr Salinger’s situation is covered by existing legislation with out checking, but, then again, when has legislation had much to do with Justice.

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  19. Strings is actually right, NIWA management played according to the rules, and there should not be arbitrary political interference in employment matters.

    But to me the issue is that the rules themselves are unfair. Someone should make these power crazed egomaniacs who run CRIs, educational institutes and other public organisations aware that employees are not working for them. The managers are fellow servants, and all the staff, managers included, are working for the public, under what ever statutory authority the organisation was formed under.

    So managers should not be allowed to make arbitrary rules about talking to the media unless it actually impacts on performance or on the statutory duties of the organisation. Dr. Salinger could be rightly taken to task for doing bad science, no science, slagging off the organisation without cause or using his lab to make P, but not for petty rules imposed by mediocre science managers on a power kick.

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  20. In the end, the MAF operations staff, who know more than the pathetic PR boffins, ignored the advice given and monitored in autumn anyway. So incursion averted, but no thanks to the managers.

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  21. JIM SALINGER represents his scientific approach to climate change

    the report above by BLip
    is correct,

    # BLiP Says:
    April 30th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    I understand Dr Salinger spoke to the media after he had been instructed not to do so. For years, Dr Salinger was the local and international media’s “go-to-guy” for sound data on climate change. He had built up sturdy relationships with many people. A person in this role can’t just stop – there has to be a transition period and flexibility. In this case, NIWA’s actions are self-destructive and indicate poor systems and management.

    I agree with you and don’t buy the conspiracy theory that he was punished for speaking the truth about the climate. More likely, there is a bully boy culture in the senior management at NIWA that can’t stand it when someone doesn’t immediately “jump to” when given instructions.

    Be interesting to see if this ends up in the employment courts.”
    ends
    BLip

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  22. Very kind of you, PeterQ.

    However, I cannot claim any credit: I simply took the time to read the link kindly supplied by Jeanette in the original post. Everything else is speculation tempered with common sense, and personal experience of dealing with PR instigators.

    Well, that, plus an understanding of how “management” in New Zealand is infested with jumped up supervisers focussed on personal achievement over the short term. Feltex, anyone?

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  23. When I first met Jim in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s he had just completed his Doctorate and was working in Wellington for the then Met Service – we both lived in the Hutt Valley and would travel together on the unit to and from work. We had many discussions on Climate and I can assure everyone that Jim was far from settled on Global Warming at that time. The Greenhouse Effect had been introduced into the Science Curriculum in NZ schools in the early 1970’s and I was interested to hear how he was interpreting the then results of Global Temperatures.
    Even then Jim had a regular column in the Upper Hutt Leader – if his employers had not wanted him to be communicating with the media they should have been muzzling him then! But the fact is, he is an excellent communicator, and was enhancing the standing of his Service then by his contributions, as he was even to the time of his unseemly dismissal. NIWA management may feel that they have a case – but they are the ones seem around the world as the villians in this sad saga and rightly so!

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  24. Perhaps Dr Salinger should have the last word on this:

    “New Zealand is on a slippery slope when trying to provide Kiwis with a greater understanding of our climate is a sackable offence.”

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  25. Kiore
    That the rules are, in someones opinion, unfair is always the case. Even a simple rule like “no stealing from the enterprise” will always get up someones nose (usually the person who consumes vast amounts of stationery at home).

    The reality for a civilised society is that we abide by the rules, whether we agree with them or not, and go about changing them in a lawful way. Breaking them, and then claiming mistreatment, is not an option. (If it was I could steal, maim, impair, etc., to my heart’s content and use the “it’s not fair” excuse – which I somehow don’t think you would side with.

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  26. BLIP

    exactly the the “it’s not fair” excuse I referred to above.

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  27. Someone talked about coperate responsibility over public responsibility. The corporate part is that NIWA is crown owned (?). The politicians are Rodney Hiding behind this Corporate reponsibility thing. People don’t believe this could be about suppressing a prominent climate scientist because he informs about climate change; I think in fact, the fashion is anti conspiracy theory in news media circles.

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  28. “The reality for a civilised society is that we abide by the rules, whether we agree with them or not, and go about changing them in a lawful way”

    Is it? In that case, the suffragettes, the slavery abolitionists, Martin Luther King, the ANC, the French Resistance, and those brave Germans who hid Jews, Slavs, Communists, Gypsies and anyone else the Nazis did not like were not acting in a civilised manner. Because all those people were breaking the laws of their own society at the time.

    I personally will not steal from my employer because I have no reason to, and so all other things being equal I am happy to abide by those particular rules. But on the other hand I support illegal direct action by animal liberationists because preventing the suffering of millions of animals is more important than upholding an unjust law.

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