Sound of silence

by Gareth on April 26, 2009

jim_salinger.jpg The National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) has fired climate scientist Jim Salinger for “unauthorised dealings” with the media. Salinger has been one of New Zealand’s leading climate scientists since the 1970s, and his sacking has shocked many in the scientific community. The Dominion Post reports:

The Crown agency’s long-serving principal scientist was dismissed earlier this week, reportedly for trying to help TVNZ’s weatherman Jim Hickey with some “climate-related inquiries” and for doing an interview with Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme without permission.

He said he received a letter in March from management summoning him to a disciplinary meeting for an interview he did with TVNZ in February commenting on Auckland’s hottest day. The interview had not been approved and was labelled “serious misconduct”. He was also reprimanded for talking to TVNZ about glaciers for which he thought he had permission.

I covered the offending glacier story here: it was an excellent piece of journalism, reflecting well on both TV NZ and the NIWA staff working on the survey. Salinger was also one of the five NZ scientists who complained last year about being on Heartland’s list of people whose work didn’t support global warming: a move which gained Jim a lot of support in the NZ media — hardly surprising when for years he’s been one of the main “go to” men for a quotable opinion on climate and weather issues.

NIWA have not commented on the dismissal, and they are unlikely to in the short term given that an employment court case is in the offing. Whatever the ins and outs of employment law, the Crown-owned research institute is going to have to work hard to avoid the suspicion that — in an echo of attempts by the Bush administration to muzzle Jim Hansen — management fired Salinger because he was refusing to be gagged.

The Green Party has already called on NIWA’s shareholding ministers, Wayne Mapp and Bill English, to ask the CRI’s board to investigate the sacking, but Mapp has refused according to the DomPost:

Dr Mapp said he would not intervene. “The matter is an employment dispute, which must be handled by the chief executive and the board,” he said.

I think Mapp has this wrong. Salinger’s dismissal raises questions of free speech and academic freedom, and if the government is to avoid suspicions of censoring inconvenient truths — at a time when cranks are being given time to spout nonsense before the ETS Review committee — then it needs to act swiftly to reaffirm that New Zealand scientists are not being muzzled. The international reputation of our science could be at stake.

See also: Stuff, Herald on Sunday, and for a critical take on the burgeoning role of bureaucrats in NZ science, an opinion piece by Doug Edmeades in Australasian Science this week (via the Science Media Centre).

[Simon & Garfunkel]

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

cindy April 26, 2009 at 4:10 pm

thanks for giving this its own post Gareth.

incredible. Jim doesn’t deserve this – Kiwis have been the ones to benefit from his work over the past 30 years and he has been recognised internationally for his work. NIWA’s boss has a lot of explaining to do.

But this isn’t the first time… I know of another scientist who left NIWA because he was being gagged – not in the climate world, but he found it increasingly difficult to air his scientific views there – and gave up.

Con April 26, 2009 at 5:07 pm
Bryan Walker April 27, 2009 at 10:31 am

It may be worth repeating under this post the information that the CEO of NIWA is John Morgan. His email address is j.morgan@niwa.co.nz NIWA belongs, however distantly, to us all. It seems to me appropriate to express dismay to him. I have. It’s also appropriate to tell Wayne Mapp that he can’t just wash his hands of a matter of such moment. His email address is w.mapp@ministers.govt.nz

Bendoire May 5, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Morgan is ultimately responsible, but my hunch is that the person who sacked Salinger or came up with the idea is one of Morgan’s deputies. The motivation of such people is to let the new boss (Mapp/English) know that they (the employee) will deliver what the Government wants, before it even asks.

They are likely to have a reputation, already, for kiss-up, kick down. Former NIWA employees will know.

Doug Clover April 27, 2009 at 11:30 am

First I am so angry about this I am finding it difficult to type.

I would only presume that NIWA gave Dr Salinger his written warnings and the offer of (re)training before implementing dismissal proceedings.

Doug

fragment April 27, 2009 at 12:44 pm

I’m studying towards a career in science. I returned to NZ specifically to do so, and I want to work here, doing research that benefits the country. I see benefiting the country as including the ability to speak publicly on scientific matters that will be in my area of expertise. I’ve been considering a CRI (not NIWA, but they’re all governed in the same way) as a possible good place to aim for employment once I’ve finished my studies, but if this is how they’re going to treat their scientists I’ll not want to work for one. That could limit my prospects for employment in my field in this country. I’d hate to have to leave again, but I will if I can’t get suitable, unmuzzled work here.

Gareth April 27, 2009 at 1:30 pm

See also a very considered post by Peter Griffin, head of the NZ Science Media Centre, here:

But given Salinger’s international reputation, there needs to be some reassuring signal from the Government that the sacking of its most senior scientist wasn’t politically motivated. Otherwise the implications for New Zealand and its place in the scientific community could be far-reaching indeed.

cindy April 27, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Bomber’s got a point over at Tumeke – NIWA is in close partnership with the NZ Coal Association in its 50% co-ownership of CRL .

Of course I cannot prove there was any pressure at all, but as I’ve said before, I smell a very large rodent in all of this and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibilities that the rodent could be linked with the fossil fuel industry in some way.

Macro April 27, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Wow!! That is just incredible – and I do mean borders on the credible! How can NIWA justify this. The stripping of emissions? Talk about getting into bed with the opposition. The whole thing reeks – and not just of soot.

John Mashey April 28, 2009 at 11:43 am

Bryan/Gareth:

As opposed to “NIWA sacking someone”, is there a discernable chain of specific people that would have to be involved? You’ve named a few, but as I noted at Deltoid, real people make decisions, not just anonymous entities, and it might be helpful to identify them. I pointed out what happened with Phil Cooney for example.

Bryan Walker April 28, 2009 at 2:22 pm

John, I’m sure it would help a great deal to identify the chain of people involved, and hopefully some investigative journalism will be done on the matter. It’s well beyond my range – all I was able to do was to consult NIWA’s website and track down the management team and the CEO. I don’t know whether the CEO replies to emails – not so far. I’ve had a reply from the Minister who satisfies himself (but not me) with the mantra “inappropriate to comment”.

John Mashey April 28, 2009 at 4:22 pm

If there is a legal action in the offing, I can’t blame somebody for saying “inappropriate to comment”.

Needless to say, none of this is easy, but on the other hand, probably *somebody* knows the chain of command at NIWA.

Bryan Walker April 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm

John, so far as I can tell his refusal to comment is based not on the fact that legal action may be pending, but on the grounds that Ministers shouldn’t interfere in employment matters. I don’t think he can use this to avoid responding to the question of whether government was in any way involved in the affair.

fragment April 28, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Not good enough. There are plenty of comments he can make without interfering in employment matters.

John Mashey April 28, 2009 at 8:39 pm

I just know from experience that if he asked a lawyer, he’d be told to say “no comment.” I have no opinion on whether or not that makes sense in this particular case, and of course, seeing good scientists mistreated irks me. I really don’t know how NZ is going to stay a first-world country if this kind of thing happens very often. I spent too much time with NZ scientists & engineers in the 1980s/1990s to like that idea.

cindy April 29, 2009 at 6:33 pm

ha!

this story is (rightfully) getting picked up internationally – in Nature, no less.
http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090428/full/news.2009.410.html

jonno May 5, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Jim is now working at Auckland Uni.. didn’t take long for a class act like himself to find new employment

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