Gerry Brownlee’s intemperate response to the GeoNet director’s calls for a 24/7 response centre can only damage further scientists’ willingness to share their expertise with the public, writes Richard Easther.
On November 17 my alarm went off simultaneously with a call from Radio New Zealand asking me to do an on-air interview about the end of the world. It turned out that it wasn’t the actual end of the world that was making the news, but Stephen Hawking’s declaration a few days earlier that the human race likely had less than 1,000 years left to run. This was still a global headline and RNZ wondered if I could contribute a local physicist’s thoughts on the story? I said yes, and after I’d made myself a cup of coffee, they called back and I delivered a couple of minutes of instant erudition as the nation had breakfast then headed into work with the warm glow that comes from notching a “job done” before you even leave the house.
Hawking’s prophecy was actually far from being the scariest thing to hit New Zealand last week; three days earlier a magnitude 7.8 earthquake wreaked havoc across the middle of the country. The quake hit just after midnight, giving many New Zealanders a very rude awakening indeed. Among those roused from their slumbers (by electronic alarms, if not the actual shaking) was the team at GeoNet, New Zealand’s network of seismographs. Beyond giving a rapid assessment of the quake itself, they have the unenviable task of helping to decide whether to wake and evacuate coastal communities facing a possible tsunami – a literal matter of life and death.
Fast, informative and robust, GeoNet did a stellar job tracking the Christchurch earthquakes. As a “science communicator” (that is, a scientist who sometimes talks about science to people who are neither students or fellow scientists) I take my hat off to them – they quickly convey complex, ambiguous information to everyone in New Zealand with an understated panache. Their Twitter feed alone should be on every Comms student’s reading list:
M4.5 quake causing moderate shaking near Porangahau https://t.co/Fqh27cEDfX
— GeoNet (@geonet) November 21, 2016
— GeoNet (@geonet) November 21, 2016
Among the torrent of information GeoNet produced over the last week was an update from their director, Ken Gledhill that was widely shared across social media. Gledhill prefaces his commentary with “I’m much more comfortable with numbers and technology than I am with words”, but then proceeds to give an elegant summary of the state of play, ending with a gentle invocation of New Zealander’s vision of ourselves as a robust and generous people – qualities that come to the fore in challenging times.
However, one comment – suggesting that a 24/7 response centre would lead to a better outcomes than relying on the judgement of people rousted from sleep – was apparently controversial. As a reader, it struck me as being simply a reflection on “lessons learned”, but Gerry Brownlee, New Zealand’s current Civil Defence minister, went out of his way to excoriate Gledhill in a media appearance on Sunday, saying the GeoNet director’s remarks had “blindsided” him and making it clear he was going to take it up with Gledhill’s boss. It later became clear that, despite Brownlee’s frustration, GeoNet and Gledhill had made a number of such statements in the past. Notwithstanding that, given that our country is now faced with a multibillion dollar rebuild coming close after the Christchurch quakes I would have hoped that Brownlee would have more important issues on his mind. It is no small matter when a senior Cabinet minister publicly vents his displeasure with a civil servant.
My own take as both a scientist and a citizen is that Gledhill was doing exactly the job I want him to do, and doing it well – not only running GeoNet through a major event, but letting me know how the system could be improved to be ready for the next one. Given Gledhill’s role and track record it is hard to imagine anyone better able to keep the public informed about GeoNet, and his opinion was stated carefully and without rancour.
Worryingly, Brownlee’s reaction came within a larger context where scientists who work directly for the government find it difficult to share their expertise with the public. Ironically, the people best-placed to speak out on this are university scientists, who enjoy a greater level of autonomy and academic freedom than scientists who working for “Crown Research Institutes” or other arms of government. Among my university colleagues, Shaun Hendy has recently written a book on just this topic, while Nicola Gaston was quoted on RNZ about the controversy this morning.
As Gledhill said in his commentary, traumatic events often bring out the best in us and our communities as we respond to disruption and damage. So I wish that our political leaders could similarly rise to the challenge, recognising and respecting the pragmatism, professionalism and honesty on offer from many of our country’s best scientists.
Richard Easther is Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland. This post originally appeared at Excurcursionset.com
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