Australian scientists are under pressure. A recent survey of more than 220 Australian environmental researchers from universities, government and industry has revealed that the suppression of science by those in power is common and widespread. The authors of the resulting study, published in Conservation Letters, conclude that science is being compromised in many countries.
Twenty-two per cent of the environmental scientists surveyed for the study reported having their work altered by an employer. One-third said they had been banned from speaking publicly about their research. The results also reveal a disconnect between the way environmental scientists regard their role and their ability to carry it out: while 98 per cent of respondents believed they had a key role in communicating science to the public, 75 per cent said they had felt pressure to refrain from public debate. The forms of suppression reported were manifold and included the prohibition of research communication, inappropriate modification of research outputs and self-censorship – where researchers refrain from presenting work for fear of being misconstrued or distorted by the media.
Don Driscoll, lead author of the study, thinks that science communication is being limited by the need to maintain governmental trust. ‘Part of the problem has been the politicisation of the public service, with senior managers appointed for their political loyalty rather than for frank and fearless advice,’ he says. The paper suggests that for those researchers employed by the government, scientific messaging that is consistent with a minister’s office may help maintain trust between scientists and politicians, while releasing controversial research could be viewed as a failure to serve policy agendas, or as a political insurgency. Many scientists said they felt the need to suppress their findings to maintain political relationships. Some 82 per cent of government respondents cited senior management as a cause for suppressing research findings; 72 per cent cited workplace policies; and 63 per cent blamed the relevant minister’s office.
Topics commonly suppressed include some of the most pressing environmental issues. Industry and government respondents reported that research into threatened species was the most constrained area, second was mining and urban development, followed by native vegetation clearing, logging and climate change. Forty-five per cent of respondents said that public discourse on these subjects was inadequate because of this constrained communication. ‘If people don’t know how the government is managing their environment, they can’t make informed decisions when they go to vote,’ says Driscoll.
While the respondents of this study were Australian, the issue isn’t confined to one country. In 2017, more than 500 separate demonstrations condemning scientific suppression by the Trump administration took place across the USA. Driscoll suggests that the issue is an ongoing saga across the world: ‘When the US marches happened, Australian ecologists were saying, “well, what’s new?”. In Australia, we’ve seen this kind of suppression for decades.’
‘We really need independent environmental agencies,’ adds Driscoll. ‘Such agencies would give responsibility for upholding environmental law to those free of partisan influence.’