Good policy requires good science

16 May 2016

Professor Shaun Hendy of Auckland University has recently published a book, Silencing Science, which presents his theory that many scientists in New Zealand are being constrained from sharing their expertise and speaking about many topics of public importance. 

While FGC acknowledges his point that in some instances scientists bound by employment agreements may not able to speak, particularly those undertaking commercial research, his use of the New Zealand Government’s decision not to fortify all New Zealand bread with folic acid as an example of scientists being silenced is not supported by the facts.

Here is Chief Executive Katherine Rich’s response to this section of Professor Hendy’s book:

Professor Hendy’s theory in his book Silencing Science that scientists in New Zealand are being silenced, supported by an anecdote about the Government’s decision to not fortify bread with folic acid, is no better than the junk science he rails against.

In the media on a daily basis there are many examples of scientists sharing their expertise and speaking freely on a wide range of issues, and that’s how it should be.  As the daughter of a vocal and well-published agricultural scientist, as well as knowing many of his peers who have dedicated their lives to the furthering of New Zealand science, I can say without doubt that there is zero chance of ever silencing them on issues that matter.   

My father taught me a useful life lesson that I employ to this day: whether it was a school social studies project or an industry issue, my father’s first question usually was (and still is), what does the data say? It’s a good way to test opinions. In his career he’s always looked to the data rather than collapsing into consensus or the latest fashion in science thinking. 

While I didn’t follow him into science, he did inspire my early career. Working alongside scientists at MAF Palmerston North and Levin, the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, and on secondment at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology only compounded my respect for science and scientists.  

This is why, as CEO of the NZ Food and Grocery Council, on any food industry issue today I default to seeking out experts in their fields (many within our own member companies), and why Professor Hendy’s light analysis of the folic acid issue in New Zealand is disappointing.

As a key anecdote in Silencing Science, it’s a poor one because the folic acid discussion was brimming with scientists and medics passionate about the topic being decidedly unsilent.

On Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon show recently, Professor Hendy made the comment that New Zealand has a small science community.  This makes sense when our population is smaller than Sydney and our academic community so tiny. It means that on many topics, while we have some people with a good overall knowledge of certain issues, sometimes we don’t have expert knowledge that comes only from being at the forefront of research and thinking. It’s no criticism of our academic community to seek advice from global experts, particularly if an issue becomes a ‘hot potato’ and local scientists in a small academic community aren’t moved to contradict their colleagues or get involved in a debate.    

In Silencing Science, Hendy wants to create the impression that my asking Professor Emeritus David Smith to do a literature review on the science relating to folic acid consumption was all part of some “carefully” constructed “campaign” designed to “sow doubt”. But his conspiracy theory is not substantiated by what actually occurred. 

His painting of Professors Smith and Helga Refsum as naïve, lone dissenters whose views were “co-opted” is unfair and indicates he has not researched their backgrounds thoroughly or even read their actual report.  

Professor Emeritus Smith is from the Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University (which he headed 1984-2005), and Professor Refsum is from the Department of Nutrition, University of Oslo. They have a combined total of 50 years’ experience in the research of folate, and have published some 130 publications in this field.

While amplifying Sir Peter Gluckman’s outstanding academic credentials and success as New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Hendy gives the impression that any science edict from Sir Peter should never be questioned – a rather parochial and quaint stance when both Smith and Gluckman have had equally outstanding academic careers. 

Regarding a purposeful campaign designed to “sow doubt”, this was not the case. After reading some early papers commissioned by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and our Food Safety Authority which referred to concerns regarding some groups (children, elderly) consuming too much folic acid in the diet, and noting the flip-flopped position on fortification by Otago University academics (from significant concern to support), I decided to seek further expert advice and an update on the science.  

It was clear that because the campaign for fortification had been ongoing for over 20 years, many supporters had cemented their views based on science that was decades old and a lot had changed in New Zealand during that time.

Supporters seemed not to take into account the falling neural tube defect rates in New Zealand, potential negative effects on other larger groups in the population e.g. children and elderly who are major bread eaters, and the increase in other fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.  There had been, of course, much additional research, and some academics were strengthening their views that while folic acid was important to the diet, too much of it was definitely not a good thing.    

Professor Hendy creates the impression that the Food & Grocery Council paid for this report. This was not the case. Though I made contact with Professor Smith initially, the Smith/Refsum report was actually funded by the Baking Industry Research Trust, which funds a wide range of academic research. 

It’s important to note, particularly as Professor Hendy infers that industry funding somehow influenced the report’s content, that while the Trust funded the report, it did not fund the research that’s referenced or discussed in it. It’s a literature review, i.e. a review of all the work that has been done on the topic globally – again, how Hendy thinks the Food & Grocery Council could influence this large body of work globally is not explained.    

It is ludicrous to suggest that an academic heavyweight such as Professor Smith, recently in New Zealand as the inaugural speaker for Brain Research New Zealand, could have the outcome of any of his work influenced by a small New Zealand industry association. To believe that is to believe that academics of the global standing of Professors Smith and Refsum would manipulate their comments simply because I had asked them to. That is laughable nonsense.

Professor Hendy’s suggestion of “cherry-picking” research is nonsense, too, and lends weight to my guess that he didn’t take the time to read the Smith/Refsum report.  It’s 72 pages, and the supplementary tables to the report, which total 146 pages, present publications showing both potentially beneficial and potentially harmful effects from folic acid. It’s all there.

When both the good and bad effects are laid out so clearly, Professor Hendy might well ask himself whether he’s at fault of cherry-picking to support his hypothesis regarding science being silenced. 

As for the accusation that I’d “scoured the world” to find dissenting views, “carefully selected the scientist”, and then orchestrated media interviews with them – hardly.  Professors Smith and Refsum, unlike many involved in the discussion locally, had a huge body of published work on the topic.  Regarding media contact, from memory the extent of my involvement was to offer an email address. Professor Smith was under no obligation to speak to anyone, but like most academic experts who are passionate about their area of work (unsilenced!) he chose whether he wanted to respond or not. I’m sure the irony is not lost on many that Professor Hendy’s implied criticism of Professor Smith’s participation in media interviews is at odds with the book’s theme that scientists should be less silent.

According to Professor Hendy, my major crime was “disrupting the process by which scientific consensus was reached”, as if such consensus is static and can never be questioned, despite history being full of examples where consensus has been proven wrong in the long term.

Finally, Professor Hendy completely overlooks the issue that some within science behaved appallingly during the folic acid discussion, publicly attacking Professor Smith personally and dismissing his report (many without even reading it). The lowest point was when Dr Andrew Marshall, a Wellington paediatrician, ridiculously referred to him on national television as a “folate hater”.  The journal which published a piece in which Dr Marshall made some equally disappointing personal attacks, rather than debate the data, was moved to apologise to Professor Smith for parts of the publication.

Unfortunately, for some folic acid campaigners in New Zealand, despite the evidence that folate levels in New Zealand women are as good as in the United States following the introduction of fortification, it’s become a religion rather than an issue of science, and Professor Hendy’s book of anecdotes perpetuates the myth.  

From an industry perspective, we have every right to seek the best advice globally and to share our views, and we will continue to do so.  While Professor Hendy repeatedly refers to the 'sanctity of science', he should remember that science is not so holy or sacred that only scientists get to offer a viewpoint. Neither is science so blessed or inviolable that it is never wrong. The best we can do is apply my father’s challenge and ask, what does the data say? 

Note: The Royal Society of New Zealand has also seen fit to respond to what it refers to as "concerns about the reliability" of some of the comments in Professor Hendy's book. Their response can be seen on their website here.