Published online 28 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.410

News

Climate scientist fired for talking to media

Sacking follows string of warnings from New Zealand institute.

A prominent New Zealand climate scientist has been fired by a government-funded research institute, allegedly for talking to the media without authorization.

Jim Salinger says that he was given little more than three hours to clear his desk at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in Auckland on 23 April, after being dismissed for giving interviews to local television and radio reporters about issues such as high temperatures, flooding and snowlines.

Salinger was a lead author on the chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 assessment report that dealt with the effects of climate change in Australia and New Zealand1. He was a principal scientist at NIWA, where he had worked for more than 25 years. "It was very shocking," he told Nature of his dismissal. "I was talking about my publicly funded science."

NIWA has a contract with New Zealand's state broadcaster to provide climate-related updates. As part of that deal, Salinger has spoken regularly to reporters in the past, and says superiors praised him for doing so. But some months ago managers told him they wanted him to have a lower profile. "They wanted me to step back and give other people an opportunity too," he says. Although he was still allowed to talk to the media, he was told to get permission first.

Chain of command

Salinger says that on the whole he complied with that request, but in February gave a live radio interview about a record high temperature in the city of Auckland without first seeking permission. It was late in the day and there was nobody else available to do the interview, he says. "This was too important a day not so say something, so I went ahead and did it."

That interview earned Salinger a verbal warning from superiors. In March he offered to take a television reporter and camera operator on a flight to monitor summer snowlines. He says he was given the go-ahead by the institute's communications manager, but was later told he should have gained permission from someone higher in the NIWA hierarchy.

Earlier this month, Salinger was on holiday when he called a television weather reporter to tell him that rivers were flooding in the region of New Zealand that he was visiting. His message was repeated on air, complete with his name and affiliation as the source. That seems to have been the final straw. Last Thursday, Salinger received a letter from his regional manager, Ken Becker, telling him that his contract was being terminated immediately.

Salinger immediately began contacting colleagues. "Everybody's shocked and gobsmacked, I've had tremendous support from scientific staff within NIWA and scientific colleagues elsewhere," he says.

A spokeswoman for NIWA declined to comment on the case, other than to confirm that Salinger no longer works there. Salinger has retained an employment lawyer and plans to make a claim of unfair dismissal.

Climate change

The controversial sacking comes as NIWA's CEO, John Morgan, is focussing on rebranding the institution. Morgan has overseen the institute's move into high-profile new premises in central Auckland in February, along with implementing a major website overhaul, according to Jacqueline Rowarth, Director of Massey Agriculture at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Rowarth believes that this trend may be a key reason behind Salinger's dismissal. "Nobody said Jim wasn't doing good research," she told Nature. "What NIWA appears to be doing is updating its image. This isn't about scientific freedom."

"I think that NIWA hasn't handled the problem well," she adds, "but for Jim to contact the media [when he had already been warned] was foolish. There are faults on both sides."

Kevin Hennessy, an Australian climatologist who was one of Salinger's coordinating lead authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chapter, says he was surprised NIWA had acted so precipitously against a well-regarded scientist. "It's all a bit strange, because Jim has a good reputation," he says. "For him to be sacked for talking to the media seems a bit strong. It really is going too far." 

  • References

    1. Hennessy, K. et al. in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. L., Canziani, O. F., Palutikof, J. P., van der Linden, P. J. & Hanson, C. E.) Ch. 11, 507–540 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

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