Censorship of science at STUK/Finland – Ministry doesn’t care…

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The last day of 2013 was my last day of work at STUK – Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Helsinki, Finland. I came to STUK nearly 22 years ago, in February 1992 to work on a research grant. Soon, I was transferred to be employee of STUK and I climbed ladder of scientific career starting with scientist, then senior scientist, then project leader and finally in 2000 I become Research Professor. I was in top salary group of STUK employees that was established few years ago to prevent drainage of experts from STUK to industry. The group was set for persons without whom STUK would be unable to perform it duties. I was one of them…

Effects of cell phone radiation on health is a very controversial topic, both scientifically and “politically”. I got involved in it in 1997 not from my own free will but because the job was given to me by my bosses. Starting from scratch, with no experience in EMF area, thanks to hard work of my research group we brought STUK cell phone research to international prominence.

However, there were “political” problems. First and foremost there was problem with ICNIRP.

One of STUK employees was, and still is, member of ICNIRP. Mine and his opinions did not always agree. I introduced to STUK policy both, precaution and warning for children, what was not liked by STUK’s ICNIRP member. However, the supreme boss of STUK agreed with my opinions and precautionary approach as well as advice to limit exposures of children become standard message of STUK from 2001 onwards.

My opinions were apparently “tolerated” but, clearly, not always liked by experts at STUK and led to attempts of censorship of my scientific opinions.

The first serious attempt to censor my opinions came in 2009. I was invited to present my opinions in US Senate hearing organized by the Appropriations Committee. I was asked to, besides speaking in hearing, to provide written statement presenting my opinions on the issue of cell phone radiation and health. There was attempt of censorship when I was asked to pass this document to other persons at STUK and to consider inclusion of their comments and opinions. I refused and it was not liked… Instead of being a very unique experience, my participation in US Senate hearing brought me rather problems with my bosses and other experts at STUK.

The other event that instead to be advantageous to my career become disadvantageous in eyes of my bosses was my participation in May 2011 in IARC evaluation of carcinogenicity of cell phone radiation. I was the only STUK expert invited to this important event that collected in Lyon 30 international experts. This invitation as well as the end result of IARC deliberations that classified cell phone radiation as a possible human carcinogen was not to the liking of other experts at STUK. I was “guilty” of having incorrect opinion, in spite of the fact that out of 30 experts some 27 voted for the same classification as I did.

Then, in June 2011 I published a science blog where I asked whether scientists involved in the Interphone project committed scientific misconduct when instead of publishing full set of data they split it in two and published separately. Because among the 16 research groups coming form 13 different countries was team from STUK, my critical opinion of Interphone project was taken by my bosses and other STUK experts as criticizing my own colleagues from my own institute. Nobody even wanted to discuss the scientific issue. Under the threat of being dismissed from my job, superior boss has demanded to remove my original blog text and personally censored “revised” version that is still on internet. I was not happy but under the threat I complied and submitted to censorship.

Apparently my opinion of impropriety was not wrong because The Scientist Magazine had no problems with publishing my opinion in this matter.

The next bout with censorship I had in 2012. At that time the superior boss of STUK, who censored my blog, has already retired and went to work for Russians.

In spring 2012 I was invited to speak at KONE Foundation event and present my opinions about cell phone radiation and health. Boss of my department demanded to see my slides and when found out that in introduction of my talk there is critical opinion about scientific value of Interphone, she demanded that I do not speak of Interphone. She plainly informed that speaking critically of Interphone project is criticizing colleagues at STUK – it is not allowed and will not be tolerated. I did not agree and I did not censor my slides. A couple of days after the lecture I got written reprimand from head of department. My complaint to the new superior boss of STUK was dismissed as invalid.

Speaking critically about science project in which STUK scientists are involved is not allowed at STUK. Who disagree with such censorship of science will be laid off, as it happened to me.

Of course, when asked directly whether censorship issue was the real reason for letting me go, my bosses will never admit it. It would be legal liability. They will stick to the officially admitted reason of laboratory closure due to research reform and financial constraints.

However, in my personal opinion, money was not the object because:

  • two different laboratories, employing over 20 persons were simultaneously closed down in response to governmental reform of research in governmental labs. Of these over 20 employees only one (!) was laid off
  • the laid off employee, myself, asked even to work part-time. in order to save money for STUK but at the same time to continue work

My proposal of part-time work was rejected. Fact that department head sent e-mail to other heads of departments asking whether they have any employment for me, practically means nothing. It was just formality to show later that the “effort” was (?) made.

Let’s not be naïve, they did not want me because I was opposing censorship of science.

This way, my nearly 22 years of very successful work at STUK, has ended. Censorship played, in my opinion, the paramount role.

This case of personal censorship problem is, however, an indicator of a broader problem brewing at STUK.

There were always, at for the last 22 years when I worked at STUK, complaints about poor quality leadership at STUK. Situation seems to be worsening. The administrative powers seem to fallen into hands of persons who do not allow free exchange of scientific opinions. In their opinion it is improper to speak critically of research done in the same institution. They do not understand that critical opinions of science are the basis of scientific progress. They seem to prefer what is in Finland known as “hyvä veli/hyvä sisar” networks (buddy-system). It translates into an opinion: ‘you do not criticize me and I do not criticize you, even if we both do something incorrect’.

This is a very dangerous situation when it occurs in institution that supervises and regulates radiation use in society and takes care that the safe radiation limits are well defined and implemented. Dangerous because some bureaucrats at STUK seem value more the buddy-system than scientific truth and are ready to cover-up errors. Because what else was censorship of the debate concerning errors of Interphone? Cover up…

Finally, I contacted the Ministry, supervising STUK, to look into the matter of my dismissal and censorship role in it. As per message I received from the assistant to the Minister, appointments and dismissals of STUK employees is an internal affair of STUK. It seems that the superior boss of STUK is above Minister in its powers, even when employee complains about possible impropriety… There seems to be nobody above Director General of STUK to complain because even Minister is helpless… What is even more worrisome, Minister seemed fully satisfied in what STUK said and did not care at all about the issue of possible censorship of expert opinions of the scientists at STUK.