Shaun Hendy discusses his nano-technology research and the complications in science communication and science funding with Maria Armoudian.

Shaun Hendy is a Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland. Hendy is an expert in the physics of complex systems and is the author of Silencing Science.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: There are two roles that you’ve been playing, one as a physicist, one as a science communicator. Let’s start with your physics, your nanotechnology? How can a non-scientist understand that?

Shaun Hendy: Well we’re all carrying around bits of nanotechnology these days in our pockets. Our cell phones have nanotechnology in them. What’s been going on over the last fifty years since we invented the transistor is they’ve been getting smaller and smaller. And so eventually they got down, about 10-20 years ago, to where we were really working at the nanoscale. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. And if you want to measure a nanometre in terms of the diameter of atoms, it’s about maybe, depends on the size of the atom, but about ten, roughly speaking. So when you’re doing nanotechnology, you are almost thinking about manipulating individual atoms. So it’s work at that scale. So I’m a theoretical physicist, and I use computers to try and help understand how things behave when they’re that small. I mean, it’s hard to see. You can’t see what’s going on at that scale. You can’t see an atom directly, so computer simulation can actually be a really useful tool to help people understand the physics down at that scale. I’m really interested in how small collections of atoms are behaving.

And actually, these days, I have extended that to people. So it turns out [that] some of the models we used to look at how atoms behave, in some circumstances, also work for people. One of the projects I got involved with this year was [about] which side of the footpath do you walk on. And it turns out [that] different parts of the world walk on different sides of the footpath. So you were just telling me you came back from the States, and you were probably bumping into people when you first got there. Because Americans tend to walk on the right of the footpath, and Kiwis walk on the left. And your first thought is, maybe this has got something to do with the side of the road that you drive on. But actually, people in the UK walk on the right and drive on the left. And in Japan there are different cities that do it different ways, which causes the railway corporations a lot of stress when people arrive from different cities at the railway stations.

MA: How does this relate to the nanoparticles?

SH: It turns out atoms can do something similar. This is a bit like magnetism. With magnetism, you have a north and a south pole. And what’s happening with the north and the south pole of a magnet is that the atoms are either walking on the left, or in other words, pointing to the north, or pointing to the south. That’s called their spin or angular momentum. And so they have to make a collective decision a bit like we do. So when we are walking down the street, if you know which way a person’s going to pass you, if you know they’re going to pass you on the left, then you’ll pass them on the left. And you don’t get into that embarrassing shuffle. And actually, atoms are doing the same thing. They are experiencing forces from neighbouring atoms that make them prefer to point in the same direction.

MA: Information tells us how to organise, sort of like DNA. It helps our bodies in how it organises, and mass media sort of provides that function for people on how to organise: what are the cultures and the mores, what’s appropriate, what is legal and what is good and bad? And it sounds like you’re saying this is true even on the sub-atomic level.

SH: Yeah, I mean atoms are not anticipating what other atoms are going to do. But they do feel the forces from other atoms, and so there is a lot of analogies that we can use, at least in the mathematics. There would be some people who thought I was stretching the analogy a little bit too far. But actually it turns out that the mathematics that we use to model things at the nanoscale can be really useful in understanding how people behave, which is really, really cool.

MA: The other hat that you wear pertains to the role of science in society. And one of the things that is very clear in today’s age is that scientists and science itself are facing a lot of challenges. You’ve written this book, Silencing Science, and you’ve looked at it primarily from the New Zealand perspective. But obviously we’re dealing with this on a global scale. You opened with Fukushima in this book and about how the science was pretty clear that there were some precautions that could have been taken. The government was warned. It could have heeded the science but it didn’t. What happened?

SH: After the very large earthquake that Japan experienced a few years ago, that earthquake triggered a tsunami, and that tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactors. I think there were four at the power plant. And those reactors melted down and are still in that melted down condition today. And we’ve essentially just got to wait for the radioactivity to decay. And that is going to be hundreds of years. So it was a big disaster, led to a massive evacuation of people, and of course, will have led to an increase in cancer in people. So it was not a great thing to happen to any country.

And yet, as people have subsequently learned, scientists were aware of the tsunami risks that both power plants faced. In fact, there was a scarily high chance of a tsunami of that size hitting those power plants during their lifetime. And scientists had tried to warn the government, but those concerns had been dismissed. There were a number of reasons. It would have perhaps undermined trust in the nuclear industry. Of course, Japan is very reliant on nuclear power, and when scientists start questioning the safety of nuclear power government officials in the nuclear industry would start to be concerned that the public are being made aware of these things. So there was a very definite effect to side-line these risks and take chances with public safety.

MA: The public ends up bearing the cost and in some really awful ways. There are parallels in other areas in which the science is pretty clear. Some of them are more complicated. Some of them are more direct, but we’re dealing with issues of public health. Climate change is obviously one of them, but also water safety, global access to water. All of these sorts of things. What are the complications?

SH: Things like earthquakes, we can’t tell you the day, or the place, or the time precisely. As scientists, what we learn about are probabilities and chances of these events happening. We know that over ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years, there is going to be so many earthquakes of a certain magnitude on a particular fault line. But we can’t say exactly when. And so when we’re warning the public, when we’re warning government, we are warning them in terms of probabilities and risks. If you’re an official, or someone who is working in industry, and we are saying, “Look in the next fifty years there is a serious risk of this earthquake”, your career is maybe going to only be ten years. Your responsibility is not going to be for those at that fifty-year time period.

There is a tendency to [think], “It’s not going to happen to me. It’s not going to happen on my watch”. And I think it’s easy then to dismiss the science. Or perhaps see the scientists as alarmists. You know, it sounds like a low risk. So the complexity, the types of information that science offers, we don’t speak in terms of certainty as scientists. That is a challenge. It’s a challenge for us to communicate it. And it’s a challenge then for the people we’re trying to communicate with to understand what we mean.

MA: Simultaneously, what seems to be happening in the economic, political, social sphere is that increasingly science is under attack from industry. And that is certainly the case in the United States. The president has announced he is appointing anti-science people to some of the highest positions in the US government. What can be done in this case among scientists?

SH: I think we are really facing difficult challenges. And as a scientist are you going to try and engage or work with these people who maybe have very different political views from you, who may be going to try and undermine you in ways that could damage your career? That is a really difficult choice, and I know there are some scientists in the US who are just kind of preparing to shut up shop and go into hibernation in the hope that science will get through this period. And there are others that are saying, “Look we’ve got to engage; we’ve got to talk to these people; we know that they’re coming from a position of anti-science in a way”. It’s interesting, isn’t it, the oil industry because they rely on science so much. They use it where it suits them, and yet they’re very, very sceptical about science that suggests that what they’re doing is not a great idea. It’s often the case that we’re not anti-science completely. It’s hard to find people who are really anti-science. What happens is people pick and choose the science they want, and that is, I think, really dangerous. And it’s something that scientists have to get better at, explaining to people that you can’t just pick one piece of science and dismiss the bits you don’t like.

MA: That is anti-science.

SH: It’s being an anti-scientist, yeah. It’s cherry-picking. In some ways we’re all prone to doing that. I think that is a difficult thing.

MA: But that is the beauty of scientific research itself, because it actually puts that under scrutiny. And it makes the results pass a lot of tests before they can actually be called scientific knowledge.

SH: Yeah, that is right. And science is one of our best institutions for dealing with the fact that we all like to hear the things we want to hear. We all want to hear news or have information that reinforces our beliefs about the world. And we don’t like information that challenges our beliefs.

MA: Or that will harm the profits of a corporation like Exxon. I think what that leads to on a global scale is it seems like increasingly science is being funded by private sources. Often corporations, but sometimes it’s also a sort of public-private thing where it’s government and private industry together. What are the ethical challenges there?

SH: We are still learning how to deal with some of the ethical challenges. But some of the things that can come up when you’ve received funding from private sources, or even the government as well, this can happen with government funding, is that if the results aren’t favourable to the funder, you may be discouraged from publishing. And that is a real problem for science. If negative results aren’t published, that can lead to a bias in the scientific literature. And it means that other scientists can come to the wrong conclusions because you haven’t published your work. Just by chance you’re getting results that are giving you false positives. If the negatives aren’t being published, those false positives can win out, and we can be led down the wrong path. And that can lead to harm. Very real harm for people.

MA: And that is partly because science is built upon science. Can you explain that?

SH: Yeah, so often we are studying an effect. We’re looking for maybe a small effect. And everybody is familiar with the newspaper headlines [such as] “Drinking coffee is good for you”. And then, the next day drinking coffee is bad for you. And actually what is going on is there is a very small effect of drinking coffee that could be slightly harmful. It could be slightly beneficial, but there are lots of people out there trying to study it. And so just by chance, we’re getting studies that say it’s [good] and some that say it is not so good. And so we can only really tell what is going on by averaging over, by looking at all these different studies and coming to a conclusion because each individual study doesn’t have the statistical power, doesn’t have the number of subjects and the number of people in it to really make it lead to a firm conclusion.

So we need all those studies. And if we only ever published the studies that say coffee is bad, then science will come to the conclusion that coffee is bad when other scientists look at the literature, if we’re not publishing the positive results as well, or vice versa. If we don’t publish the negative results, then it will just reinforce our caffeine habit. And I drink a lot of coffee. I always want to read the articles that say coffee is good. So even then, I’m getting a biased picture of the world because I’m preferentially choosing to read things that are going to make me feel good.

MA: But this is part of what you talk about in your book, that policymakers do this in a way that can be very harmful to the public. What are some examples of that?

SH: A particular example in New Zealand has been around folic reinforcement in bread. Folic acid is one of the nutrients that we need. In particular, pregnant women need it. And we know that if you’ve got a folic deficiency in your diet, there is a greater risk of babies developing defects, neural defects and having problems in later life. And so as a public health initiative, you can mandate folic fortification in bread. And a number of countries have done this around the world. And it costs the bread makers slightly more. It makes the bread slightly more expensive, so there is a downside to it. But it means that women who don’t realise they’re pregnant and so aren’t in a position to start taking folic supplements are getting folic early in their pregnancy. And that reduces the harm to babies.

Now if you’re in the grocery business, if you’re selling bread, if you’re making bread, you really don’t want to make your bread more expensive because it is going to lower your profits. It’s going to lower the volume of bread that you’re going to sell. And so you’d rather not do this. You’d rather focus on the studies that say this is harmful. Because there are a few studies out there that suggest maybe there are some risks to people from having folic acid in their bread. And so early on, before it was really clear, people were focusing on those negative studies and saying, “No, it’s too risky”, picking up on those, and not thinking about the benefits.

MA: For policymakers, how can they sort through this kind of morass of data in studies to try to come up with the best policies for the public?

SH: It is hard. And even scientists struggle to do this. But we do have to come up with mechanisms and ways. So one way that a policymaker can work in New Zealand is they can ask the Royal Society to come up with a report that basically summarises the state of play. What is the evidence around this? That can be effective. But again if it’s a politically contested area, if you’ve got a lobby group that is not going to like the results, they’ll often in the media, try and undermine what the Royal Society is doing. The Royal Society tends to be a very cautious organisation. It tries to stay back.

MA: Is that partly because it is funded by government and doesn’t want to offend?

SH: Yep, that is part of it. And it likes to be seen as not playing politics. It won’t get into these battles with these organisations. And so if you’ve got an organisation that is just putting out information and is not prepared to engage politically with it, it’s just sort of handing over the information saying, “ok, here we’ve done our work. It is now your job as a policymaker to sort it all out”. Well, that can work sometimes, but when politics are involved, when there are politicians who are not going to like it, or lobby groups that are not going to like it, then that can be very ineffective.

MA: We saw an example of this with climate change, with what they called Climategate, which was the hacking of the emails of the scientists and then essentially labelling the scientists and the science itself as fraudulent. And it really created a problem with the public understanding of what is going on with science.

SH: The more closed we are as a scientific community, the less we are doing our work in the open, and the more reluctant we are to go out and engage with the public, the less trust we get. And then we’re vulnerable. I mean scientists, we all use words like “tricks”. Theoretical physicists love to talk about mathematical tricks. It’s not a trick as you might use when you are doing magic, just a cool little mathematical technique that we might be using. And it is cute to call them tricks. But when we saw the Climategate emails, and we saw these scientists talking about tricks.

MA: How it can be misused and misunderstood?

SH: Yeah, then suddenly that looked pretty dodgy. Unless what we’re doing is visible to the public and they have an opportunity to see how we talk and think, then we are always vulnerable to be undermined in those ways.

MA: I noticed you cited Naomi Oreskes. In her book she talked about a concerted effort among lobby groups ranging from the cigarette industry to the oil industry really trying to distort these findings in this way. These multinational corporations have a lot of money. And scientists are at the behest of sometimes the corporations themselves but often other types of foundations and grants. Is there really any possibility of helping the public understand these issues in a game that is tilted in this way?

SH: Yeah, when you put it that way, it is kind of depressing, isn’t it? The sort of PR resources that these big corporates have. And we do know that some of that is being deployed in New Zealand. We saw from the dirty politics saga that actually there is money from big corporates flowing into our PR scene to try and combat science. On the other hand, when you look at who the public trusts, scientists still have, particularly university scientists, academic scientists are amongst the highest trusted professionals by the public. So we need to use that and build it. And when scientists do get out and engage, they can have in-depth conversations with the public and also seem to be listening to the public too.

I mean I think it is up to us to take public concerns seriously and not just dismiss them. Often in the past, we’ve had a tendency to be elitist about it. “Right, look you guys just don’t understand. Well sort it out for you and then we’ll tell you what the answer is and it will be alright”. And we still see that from time to time in the way scientists deal with the public. We don’t really want to get down and have our science questioned.

MA: There are also simultaneous problems. One is pertaining to traditional journalism and its balancing when there is really not much to balance. We saw this again with climate change where the journalists generally would have a climate scientist talk about the science. But then they would so-called balance it against somebody from industry. And it gives a misleading perspective to people.

SH: Yeah, when you have false balance. When you’ve got 97% of scientists think A, and 3% think B. That is basically how it is in climate change, and that 3% are often not the experts.

MA: And on the payroll of corporations who stand to benefit?

SH: That is right. Then putting the 3% up against the 97% is a false balance. It’s not presenting an accurate picture of the science. And so that is a real problem. I think we have seen the media get a bit more sophisticated about that recently, particularly in New Zealand. A number of our media outlets are no longer doing that. They’ve understood that. On the other hand we still need the media to be sceptical of science. We don’t want a media that just takes everything that we say as right. It’s so important that we have an independent media that can scrutinise science and understand the signs of when science goes wrong. Because there are some very public scandals where scientists have gone off the rails and caused a lot of harm. And so we need that scepticism in the media.

And of course the media are struggling. The financial models that have supported our media for a couple of hundred years are now under a lot of pressure. And I know that journalists are often covering multiple beats. I don’t think we have any full-time science journalists in New Zealand anymore. And so that is really hard to be doing travel, or the environment as well as science. And to develop that understanding of how the science community works and to know who to talk to.

MA: That brings up the issue of new media. And I know that you and some of the other scientists around here are at least writing your own blogs about some of the things that you are finding and your colleagues are finding so that people can try to understand what is coming out of the institution in terms of scientific research. But that can also be a double-edged sword. The new media, as we just saw with the US election, there’s a lot of fake news. And people don’t have the fact-checking all the time. So in your experience, how do you see new media playing into this?

SH: It is very much a double-edged sword, and it’s very challenging. I think we’re all going to have to learn to be more sceptical about things we read on the internet. We’ve always been told [to] be sceptical of things you read on the internet. And now we really have to exercise that. I know I am having to be more actively sceptical of things I read and the things that come up on my Twitter feed. I am filtering them more on the basis of scepticism. I think we all have to look into people’s credentials. In some ways we all have to become journalists. We all have to cultivate that sceptical frame of mind and question sources. One thing that the new media is really good at doing is actually linking you to the source material. That is something you can do on a blog that you couldn’t do ten years ago.

MA: So that would be like a link that people can go to the original data?

SH: Yeah, and that is something I use. If I see something and I am like, “That doesn’t sound right”, I look for sources. And I can click through to sources and see if there is a good scientific publication that is underlying that. And that also means that actually scientists are going to have to get used to what is called open access publishing, because traditionally academic materials are being published in journals that cost thousands of dollars, tens of thousands in some cases, a year to subscribe to. I talk to some of my colleagues in the Crown Research Institutes or even people in government, and they can’t get access to research that was done by New Zealand scientists. You know, isn’t that crazy that a public official, a government official who has funded some research that was done by a New Zealand scientist can’t get access to that research? That is just crazy!

So we do have to change the model of how we publish our work and make sure that it’s accessible to people. So when there is a newspaper article or something online that talks about our work, people can follow and see the original conclusions. That is often really fascinating. You read a newspaper headline that coffee is good, coffee is bad, whatever. And you actually go look at the work, and the scientists will be much more cautious about framing the conclusions.

MA: Going back to the issue of funding and science and what the US is seeing with the new administration. I spoke to a brand new Ph.D. student out of the Politics Department. She had studied the public diplomacy efforts of the US to make Mexico bring in GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. She found that the State Department was working with Monsanto and Bayer, funding institutes and research in Mexico to try to make it more attractive to bring in GMOs onto their farm products and such. Is there a conflict of interest with this sort of thing that scientists need to be careful about?

SH: Absolutely. And there have been some very high profile cases recently where people have gotten caught for not disclosing interests. They might have had funding. It might have been a small bit of funding from a multinational corporation. But actually that can completely undermine your message and your image as an independent scientist in the media or in the eyes of people who care about that stuff. That is not to say we shouldn’t be working with companies. I mean that is an important way of making sure our research has impact, that we do actually work with companies that can turn our ideas into products. That can improve people’s lives. But at the same time, we have to realise that it compromises our independence. [We should] be more open and transparent about our funding sources and be very cautious about making sure that you don’t restrict your ability to comment or to talk about something. If your findings are going to be critical of the company or perhaps undermine a position the company has taken or show that a product is not as effective as a company might like, then you’ve got to be up front and say that you will go public with that.

MA: How hard is that?

SH: It can be hard. It can mean turning down sources of funding that might otherwise be beneficial for your career. That is the reality. But if you’re up front and the company really wants your science, or the government agency that you are working with really wants your science, then they will agree to that. And, again, if companies are not prepared to do that, then we have a responsibility to tell the public about that. If companies are routinely saying, “No, you can’t do this work unless you agree to not disclose it for twenty years”, then we should be letting the public know about that. I mean it’s often very difficult. Scientists are not lawyers. We’ll read these contracts, and it will often be put in terms of commercial sensitivity. And that is understandable. A company is funding your work, it wants to get some commercial advantage. And so there’ll be things you have to sign about the commercial sensitivity of your work around intellectual property and so forth.

So we do have to become more sophisticated in the way that we deal with companies. And of course we do have lawyers in our universities, in our institutions, that can help us navigate through that.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.