It’s a hard road taking on the critic and conscience role as an academic
As a scientist I am often accused of the heinous crime of being an advocate.
As a “scientist” I’m supposed to be ‘value-free’. Like a robot or an automaton. I must stick only to the “science”
So as a scientist I must stick only to my field of expertise. I must never stray from that into connecting the dots to see the bigger picture. Dangerous space that is, I might drift out of my field of expertise.
When I appear in court, and in academic publications I must swear that I have no conflicts of interest.
I am expected to give the facts and nothing but the facts, I must draw no conclusions, admit to no preferences.
But of course, we are all influenced, by our values, the values we have are influenced by our worldview, the paradigm that we live in.
We are predisposed to a certain way of thinking by our upbringing, the level of wealth and privilege, our ethnicity as well a multitude of other factors.
I don’t believe anyone can claim to have no conflicts of interest.
Where the crucial difference is though is whether your vested interest is in your business and your income which is self-interest or is your interest public interests? Vested in your community maybe your country maybe in humanity.
So, what it really boils down to is self-interest vs. public interest
Self-interest is already well funded by the organisations I’m up against in court and other places i.e. the exploiters, and often they also have the regulators on their side thinking that their role is to never hinder growth no matter how harmful. And some of them are academics dependent on industry funding.
So, who then looks after the public interest?
The answer is independent academics. And to me that is the most crucial role of Universities to nurture and support them
For the best interests of protecting the public, universities must have values over and above just turning out graduates. The value above that is the unique opportunity to be the Critic and Conscience of Society – something to represent future generations, to represent those who can’t represent themselves, someone who isn’t dependent on allowing the harm to continue.
This is the most important role of university scientists. We have a fantastic example playing out in front of us daily now with the Covid.
Imagine taking away the likes of Michael Baker, Siouxsie Wiles, Shaun Hendy, Nick Wilson and all the other independent science academics, imagine what the Covid debate would look like then, imagine what a nightmare – Bloomfield vs Hoskings.
Where would the political leaders look for advice without independent academics?
Where would the public and media turn to without the university’s critic and conscience?
Of course, it’s not easy taking on that critic and conscience role.
Advocating as I have for a liveable planet inevitably involves calling out the harm generated by extractive business, and in my experience, this does not make for popularity at work.
The two universities where I have worked have not appeared to be as keen on advocacy as I am.
Turns out that taking on the critic and conscience role brings with it an endless parade of complaints to the Vice Chancellor.
The vested interests have figured out that a good way to shut down a noisy critic is to get the critic’s university to do it for you.
Generally, the complaint contains some version of, “how dare your staff member use your privilege of public funding to put down our private business”.
For example my head of institute at Massey hauled me into his office to face complaints about me from his regional council and farming friends, my previous VC at Massey Steve Maharey got endless complaints about me from industry, some with demands that I be sacked.
To his credit though he always told them unless they had proof of some factual error then they should go away. His message to me was as long as you “play with a straight bat” I will support you.
Sadly, things have changed, the attitude now seems to be that any complaint is bad, And I am guilty unless i can prove otherwise.
Also, I’ve had the problem of being ‘got at’ through my colleagues at the university. This is where I have been told by colleagues whose research is funded by industry or local or central government I have been calling out, that they have been told if I don’t “pull my head in” their funding is at risk.
I think that the critic and conscience role of academics has never been more crucial than it is now, and by no coincidence at all it has also never been so threatened.
Organisations are spending exponentially more and more on public relations, increasing communication staff along with an ever-growing presence on social media meaning that the independent voice of academics becomes even more critical for society.
But I have seen universities are becoming more and more corporate and transactional fighting amongst each other for students and funding.
In my experience this means universities are averse to staff members making a stand that might be polarising or in some way upset potential funders.
They want to be seen as everybody’s friend because everybody or anybody could potentially be a funder or student, far safer in this competitive environment not to upset anybody.
There are many indications of this corporate – transactional attitude but here is one example from my experience. Six months or more after I left Massey I had a student come up to me in a cafe and thank me for a great lecture, I was dumfounded to be told that she was a Massey student and it turned our they were still using my recorded lectures long after I left, they are probably within their rights to do that but they never even asked or informed me. In Canada students at a university found that their online lecturer died 2 years previously.
So yes, back to being an advocate well mea culpa I have become one. And like a small but growing number of scientists, I am unashamed to announce my preference for a liveable planet.
I admit I have values that influence what I do as an academic, I will stray out of my field of expertise by joining the dots making connections and looking at the bigger picture.
I admit to having a conflict of interest = I care that our future is in extreme peril.
My vested interest in our future is our vested interested shared by all humans, and conflicts only with the interests of those who seek to degrade the environment.
To return to the court situation, I want to relate some of my experience in council consent and plan change hearings, environment court and EPA Board of inquiry hearings.
Sadly, the commercial advocacy or vested interest of exploiters is almost never questioned in court or anywhere else, but the motives of defenders of the environment almost always are.
I was once asked and consent hearing where I appeared as an expert witness if I was philosophically opposed to the industrial discharge that was being heard.
I said yes I was admitted that I was opposed to any industrial discharge of pollutants contaminants to waterways and found out afterwards that my evidence could be discounted because and was discounted because I had a philosophical opposition to the action that was the center of the case. This made me very angry because if so I had been at a murder trial and I was an expert forensic medical expert and was asked if I was physically philosophically opposed to murder and answered yes I don’t think the question would be asked.
At another hearing I was asked if I was a member of Forest and Bird as I was their expert witness, the implication being If I was a member of that radical organisation my testimony would be biased. The industry funded witnesses are never asked about the organisations they belong to.
I think that as an independent scientist the most important thing I can do to achieve my aim to protect the life supporting capacity of the planet is to expose the mostly hidden environmental degradation so that people have the information to make the right democratic choices.
So much of my work is to point out the who is doing the harm and how and to point out the failure of central and local government to both limit and report accurately on the harm.
So, we must fight for the freedom to go on pursuing the most important task we have. Academic freedom is crucial and goes hand in hand with the university’s critic and conscience role and is the most important role the university has.