Scientist fired for speaking to press discusse s a settlement

Public outcry followed dismissal of global expert on climate change. Melanie Newman reports

May 28, 2009

A leading climate scientist who was controversially sacked by a national research institute for talking to the media without prior approval is negotiating a settlement after a public outcry over his treatment.

Jim Salinger was dismissed by New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) in April for giving media interviews without permission, in breach of a new protocol. He is understood to have made comments directly relating to his expertise, on weather and climate change.

As a lead author of the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Salinger was instrumental in its winning the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The academic, who is also president of the World Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, has been in mediation talks with Niwa since his dismissal, but as Times Higher Education went to press, he had failed to reach a settlement.

Although Niwa has declined to comment on the firing, it has said that all staff, apart from some senior scientists, must get permission from its media team and a member of the senior science staff before speaking to the media.

An editorial in The New Zealand Herald on 8 May alleged that there was a repressive atmosphere in the Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). These were formed in 1992 from various government departments. They must be financially self-sustaining and run on commercial lines. One UK-based New Zealander told Times Higher Education that they represented an "unhealthy mix" of commercial imperatives and science in which scientists were marginalised.

The Herald editorial said that CRIs should, like universities, allow staff to speak freely. "Commercial imperatives and freedom of speech are not so inimical that media minders need to rule on every public utterance, even the routine," it said.

"Clearly, matters have gone too far when scientists speak of fleeing institutes because of the draconian rules. And they have gone way too far when a scientist who is, arguably, Niwa's top asset is dismissed for what, according to the institute itself, is a matter of the utmost triviality."

The president of New Zealand's Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science called the case an "extreme embarrassment". "We are exposed as an immature, bureaucratic and small-minded country who cannot manage creative people," John Lancashire said.

Documents obtained by The Press newspaper showed that managers praised Dr Salinger in 2007 for his communications, describing him as "the face of Niwa to the media".

After the sacking, Dr Salinger was quoted as saying that the atmosphere at Niwa had changed in recent months, that he had been told to "stand back from the media stuff". Despite the warnings, he spoke on TV about an alpine snowline survey and to Radio New Zealand about a hot day in Auckland without permission from the media team.

"Maybe I did breach their policy over Radio New Zealand, but heavens, that's not going to destroy Niwa," he is reported to have said. "Everyone else was away; I knew I had breached it, but it was too important a day."

Ministers have refused to comment on the case, saying it is purely an employment matter.

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