Jeanette Fitzsimons

Jeanette questions Salinger sacking

by Jeanette Fitzsimons

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:

Published in Justice & Democracy | Parliament | Video by Jeanette Fitzsimons on Thu, April 30th, 2009   

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