Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Science being Suppressed

Australian scientists say they are prevented from speaking openly about their work and their advice is being suppressed by government and industry when it comes to the impact of logging, mining, land-clearing and the climate crisis. Forms of suppression include not being able to present or publish results, changes being made to findings before the work is released and self-censorship due to fear of retribution.

A study by the Ecological Society of Australia, published in the journal Conservation Letters, surveyed 220 scientists across government, industry and academia on the extent to which their work had been suppressed.

It  found about a third of government and industry-employed ecologists and conservation scientists who responded said they had experienced undue modification of their work. About half the government scientists and nearly 40% of those working for industry said they had been blocked from releasing or discussing what they had found either publicly or internally where they worked. Slightly more than half of all respondents (56%) said they felt the constraints on public commentary had become more severe in recent years. This was most often the case in commentary about the plight of threatened species, with 56% of industry, 46% of government and 28% of university scientists working in the area reporting they felt limited in what they could say.

University and industry researchers were more likely to avoid public commentary due to fear of misrepresentation in the media, while government employees were most often constrained by their manager or workplace policy.

Euan Ritchie, a Deakin University associate professor in wildlife ecology and co-author on the paper, described the study as “pretty clear evidence the democratic process, which is based on having an informed public, is being interfered with”.

Don Driscoll, the lead author and a past president of the society, said the study showed that some of Australia’s best scientists were being prevented from sharing their work not only with the media and on social media platforms, but with colleagues and policymakers through peer-reviewed journals and at conferences. He said the potential consequences were profound as it meant policies on issues such as climate change, bushfires and regulation of development proposals may not be informed by the best science.

“In reality, these findings may be the tip of the iceberg,” he told Guardian Australia. “It reflects on a type of corruption that’s going on in the system.”

Driscoll, who is also the director of the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University, said many industry-employed scientists were consultants hired to assess the environmental impact of proposed developments. Those scientists were often left with no recourse if the work they did was modified before being presented to a government in a development application as their contracts prevented them speaking publicly. Similarly, he said, scientists that worked within government departments and agencies faced an increasingly politicised system in which information was often filtered by public servants and ministerial staff before reaching politicians.

Driscoll said the findings suggested a politicised culture in how science was dealt with and showed the power of vested interests.


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