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The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm
The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm

SocietyNovember 4, 2016

Are New Zealand’s scientific experts really dead – or just resting?

The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm
The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm

The row over Jacqueline Rowarth’s strange suggestion that the Waikato River is one of the world’s five cleanest reveals a need for more scientists to be heard in public, not fewer, writes Shaun Hendy.

In post-Brexit Britain, failure to heed the warnings of economists on the risks of leaving the EU has spawned many a thinkpiece on the death of the expert. Indeed, experts might be forgiven for ending it all after a British scientist who pointed out that the moon causes the tides was called out by a UKIP MP and accused of fear-mongering. Britain may have once ruled the waves, but now finds itself ruled by folk who find waves a little bit confusing.

Here in New Zealand, we know full well that the tides are caused by the decision of the previous Labour government to extend daylight saving. And with minds untroubled by tidal forces, Kiwis have had time to contemplate a deeper question:

Why are our rivers full of shit?

Traditionally Kiwis worry less about whether their experts are dead than whether they left a forwarding address before they moved to Australia. Sure enough, when more than 5,000 people became sick thanks to the contamination of Havelock North’s water supply in August, our experts made themselves rather scarce.

The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm
The Waikato River in full flight. Photo: Colin Bush / EyeEm

When Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair, Fenton Wilson, was asked by Radio New Zealand about his Council’s reports concerning the woefully unhealthy state of the nearby Tukituki river, he said “I don’t have any of that information to hand.” When it was put to him that recent flooding may have driven contaminated water into one of the town’s aquifers, Wilson speculated that “speculation is not helpful at this time”.

Did we really not have any scientists who could speak knowledgably on whether contaminated surface water could have gotten into Havelock North’s groundwater?

Remarkably, science confirms that remnant populations of such scientists do still reside in New Zealand. They work for the government, and as I wrote in Silencing Science earlier this year, they are the sorts of experts we almost never hear from.

Check them out in happier times, speculating wildly at their Te Papa workshop last year on “Groundwater-Surface Water interaction”. Unfortunately the last thing a government scientist is allowed to do is to speak – I mean, speculate – about something that actually affects the public.

And who needs an expert when helpful prime ministers can always find you another with a different point of view?

Cue Jacqueline Rowarth, the newly minted chief scientist at our Environmental Protection Authority, who, before taking the job, was telling the public that the Waikato River is “one of the five cleanest rivers in the world”.

Rowarth, previously a professor of agribusiness at the University of Waikato, was hired by the EPA to use her “expertise to explain our science, so people can have trust and confidence in the decisions we make”, according to EPA chief executive Dr Allan Freeth.

This may have sounded like a good plan at the time, but Rowarth’s stance on water quality has had other experts increasingly alarmed.

New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society president Marc Schallenberg said that Rowarth’s “comments concerning the condition of the Waikato River are not only false, but distract from the important work being done to improve water quality in New Zealand”.

Bryce Cooper, a water quality expert at NIWA, said, “Water quality in its [the Waikato River’s] lower reaches ranks in the bottom half of 500 sites nationally for key indicators such as nitrogen, phosphorus, E.coli (a measure of faecal contamination) and water clarity.”

If you are predisposed to think that the science of tides was fabricated 400 years ago in preparation for Project Fear, then you may also be tempted to dismiss these water quality experts as having a vested interest in spreading alarm in order to keep themselves employed.

But if you actually want to be better informed about our rivers, you do need to hear from scientists like Cooper and Schallenberg – and, yes, Rowarth too. Because this is how science works. Scientists make claims, present their evidence, and wait for the judgement of their peers.

Better that we know how Rowarth views the evidence than not. Now those views are in the open, they can be scrutinised and critiqued.

Rowarth herself has now gone quiet, joining the ranks of New Zealand’s silent scientists. When Rowarth was asked to comment on her views by Radio New Zealand, the EPA replied, saying, “it would be inappropriate for her to comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role.”

So New Zealand’s experts aren’t yet extinct. Not quite.

On a calm day, if you listen very carefully, you can almost make out what they are saying.

Keep going!