Imagine you’ve spent your whole working life learning to parse complex climate data, or studying the delicate ecosystem on which an endangered animal depends.
You not only know your stuff: you live it. You care deeply, in the way that people care about things they really understand. You’ve looked at the climate, the species, the ecosystem – the Great Barrier Reef, perhaps – not just through a scientific lens, but through a wider lens. You know there’s a terrible threat to this incredible portion of the universe.
Now imagine you get a chance to tell the world about this extraordinary animal, or place, or the terrors contained in your climate modelling. You’d want to be able take it, right?
Australian ecologists and ecology scientists are reporting increasing levels of interference, intimidation, and straight-out misrepresentation of their views by forces outside of science. Their press releases are being altered to fit policy positions, and sometimes even academic papers and conference papers are constrained by management, or funding considerations. Fear of being misrepresented in the media – and the flow-on effects for their work – is also high.
This is despite the belief, held by almost all Australian ecologists who took part in a study published in the journal Conservation Letters last year, that they had a role to play in public discussions of environmental issues. A third even believed it was their ‘duty’ to participate in public debate or policy advocacy.
However, the study found, ‘there is pressure in Australia to protect political and industry interests by suppressing information about environmentally damaging policies or ventures.’
This phenomenon, known as ‘science suppression’, is a hot topic, but it’s hard to demonstrate in practice. How, after all, do you prove what’s not happening?
The Conservation Letters study, by Deakin University professor Don Driscoll and others, was funded by the Ecological Society of Australia and prepared by the society’s Academic Freedom Working Group. A call-out over part of 2019 brought 220 responses from professional researchers, policy makers, managers and executives working in the field of ecology in Australia.
By ‘suppression’,’ the study said, ‘we mean ‘an active process to prevent (scientific) data from being created, made available, or given suitable recognition’.’ Suppression, in other words, of the very thing that science is supposed to create: knowledge.
If you glance over recent Australian articles about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest, shocking, report, you might notice something strange: the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is rarely quoted. Rather, university researchers working on climate change are journalists’ go-to. This is because, as Driscoll found and numerous media liaison staffers told me, only universities offer protection to scientists’ freedom of speech.
Half of government-employed ecologists in the study had, at some point, been flat-out banned from communicating the results of their work to the public. The report further stated:
Even internal communications were reported to be suppressed and modified, meaning that government ministers, senior managers, and corporate leaders might not receive frank information about the risks to biodiversity posed by their policies, decisions, and, ultimately, actions.
Three-quarters of scientists and researchers who responded said they had ‘refrained from making a contribution to public information or debate when given the opportunity’ because of active or perceived suppression.
A quarter of the ecologists – most of them working in research or policy roles – believed that ‘policy makers were inadequately informed’ about their areas of expertise, and nearly half said public discourse was inadequate. Government workers were even more likely to say that policy was being made on insufficient information.
And, Driscoll found, it was the more complex and sensitive topics that were most likely to suffer ‘science suppression’. Self-censoring was extremely common, Driscoll said. ‘And it wasn’t just in social media or traditional media; some even said they self-censored parts of conference presentations and scientific papers.’
Top areas for suppression included species loss; mining; development; feral animals; vegetation clearing; logging, and of course, climate change. Government agencies were particularly at risk.
Lyndal Byford, director of news and partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre, has seen science suppression in action.
‘It’s not something we’re seeing only in the climate space … it’s something that we see consistently across the board,’ she told me. In many cases, ‘the actual scientists are not allowed to talk to journalists,’ with politicians wanting to be quoted instead.
While university researchers were more able to speak, often the most knowledgeable people worked directly for government, Byford said.
‘The consequence of that is (journalists) have to go to people who are less informed … universities are often not directly involved in collecting the data.’
Even some key epidemiologists ‘disappeared into government health departments’ at the start of the pandemic and had become unavailable for public comment.
If a researcher held more than one role, they could sometimes speak in their academic capacity, but ‘suppression doesn’t have to be overt … to result in scientists not doing it,’ she said.
Another media professional, who has worked in science media liaison for nearly ten years, but asked not to be named, said that
it is almost impossible for any scientists who works on environmental issues, such as climate change or threatened species in Australia, to build a career that is independent of government; they either work for a government agency directly or they will need to apply for government grants and funding at some point.
For people directly employed by either federal or state governments, while they may be actively publishing in scientific journals it is extremely rare for them to get permission to talk to the media, even when they are the Australian authority on a topic or have a good-news story to tell.
Scientists in the university sector seldom need permission to talk to the media, but they can feel very conscious that the future of their careers, and that of their teams, could be at risk if they fall out of favour with government, by talking to the media about research findings that are not convenient for the government of the day.
It isn’t just paranoia, I am aware of multiple cases of government staff suggesting scientists should not promote particular findings in the media, with subtle reminders that the relationship is at stake. It means that when the public turn up to vote, they don’t have a full understanding of what’s going on.
An investigation by Guardian reporter Lisa Cox in May this year found that the government ‘tried to stop the publication of an academic paper that found it needed to drastically increase its spending on threatened Australian wildlife.’ Cox obtained internal documents that showed that the federal department of environment drew up ‘options’ for a paper from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, including not publishing at all. The paper showed that Australia was spending about a tenth of US levels on species recovery.
In fact, Driscoll says his research showed that suppression was most felt by scientists working with endangered species. (Although the study was targeted at environmental scientists, so some fields of science were not covered.)
‘Government and industry don’t want the public to know they are doing such an appalling job, as evidenced by the consistently bleak State of the Environment reports,’ Driscoll said, stating that the suppression of scientific research and communication is a threat to democracy. The Conservation Letters study concluded that
if the voting public do not know how their elected representatives are managing the environment, they cannot make informed choices at the ballot box.
‘Democracy depends on the ability of voters to evaluate the performance of governments and to vote out parties that are not performing,’ Driscoll told me. ‘By hiding their appalling performance on environmental protection, the government is undermining people’s ability to make informed choices and therefore they are weakening our democracy.’
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it could also be a threat to the planet: without full and frank discussion, and real data on climate change and extinction rates, how can we even begin to tackle those issues?
Intimidation of scientists in Australia isn’t new. Ten years ago, academic Clive Hamilton documented how climate scientists were targeted by virulent bullying when they spoke out. But, as the extinction and climate crises intensify, so does the urgency of getting good information about what to do.
Driscoll gives the recent public relations battle over the Great Barrier Reef as an example:
We have seen the Australian federal government wage a campaign to convince the World Heritage Committee not to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, when the science very obviously demonstrates that the reef is facing a rapidly worsening crisis.
We hope that our research can be used to launch discussions in environmental workplaces about science suppression. We want people to acknowledge the problem and start working towards honest reporting of environmental evidence.
But he hasn’t seen much progress:
I can’t report major reforms in government or industry … the university sector is doing a little better, with reforms to academic freedom policies now on most university’s agendas.
Ironically, some of those academic freedom policies stem from the Coalition government’s support for those who question environmental science.
The High Court is currently considering the case of Peter Ridd, a former James Cook University physicist who is suing the university for unfair dismissal. He was sacked in 2018 after he criticised researchers working on the Great Barrier Reef.
The case helped trigger a review of free speech in universities that led to a new ‘model code’ on freedom of speech that universities are being required to adopt.
If this greater free speech was extended to other scientists – say, those who work in the Bureau of Metereology, or those monitoring Australia’s forest ecosystems from inside State agencies, it might reduce the mental toll on the scientists on whom we depend.
A third of respondents told Driscoll’s study that they had experienced ‘personal suffering,’ including job dissatisfaction ‘moral compromise, feeling inauthentic, or (being) frustrated over being unable to freely communicate.’ Some had even lost their jobs, or abandoned their fields of research. Some were actively threatened or harassed over the way they communicated their research results.
Sometimes, it seems like environmental scientists are being burdened with the curse of Cassandra: to speak the truth, but never to be believed. It’s hard enough for them to have to watch the catastrophe unfolding: the least we could do is listen.
Image: a bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef (Wikimedia Commons)