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Muzzling of science

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 20 April 2006


Publish or perish used to be the mantra by which the researcher lived or died. Today, according to an increasing number of eminent scientists in unpopular fields, Australian researchers can do both.

Unpopular here refers to any of those fields of science liable to produce evidence unsettling to the fixed world-view held by governments, business, special interest lobbies or that most anonymous and unaccountable of research controllers, the stakeholders. Nowadays it refers to environmental science, forestry research, greenhouse science, fisheries research, energy research, water research, atmospheric research, pharmaceutical research, dietary research, some health research and, in general, public good research.

And here, publish refers not merely to lobbing an arcanely phrased report at a peer journal, it refers to that which most scientists in Australia are actually employed to do: inform the public, who pay their wages, about what they've found.

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The censorship against which more and more leading Australian scientists are speaking out is both overt and covert. It exists in managerial directives not to communicate, to comment or otherwise share information and scientific conclusions with the public. It exists in the reprimand, the bullying, the sidelining, the punishment and the actual dismissal of those who dare to transgress. This is not supposition; it is on the public record.

But it also exists in self-censorship. Step out of line and your paper won't be published, you won't get the next grant, you'll be passed over for promotion, you'll be made redundant. Nothing is ever said, just a veiled threat and the rest left to the victim's imagination. And in science it's hard to find another job that isn't in a taxi.

Of course, bastardry has always been a part of the academic game. Newton experienced his fair share with the Royal Society. Many proponents of paradigm-shifting ideas have to weather the personal animus that stepping beyond the prevailing consensus involves. But that is the way ideas are tested, and, like democracy, it may not be a good system, but it's the best we've come up with so far.

The present embargo on free speech in Australian science is different. For one thing, it isn't run by researchers, scientists or by one's peers. It is wielded by managements, by boards, by stakeholders, by governments, by people with a vested interest in certain science not reaching the public. And it is more than a form of censorship, it is a form of theft. In preventing researchers from informing the public what they have observed and the conclusions obtained from it, the censors have deprived society and industry of greater knowledge and the benefits that flow from it: knowledge that has been paid for by taxpayers.

People who defraud the social security system rightly get the book thrown at them. People who defraud the public of scientific information which the public has paid for, get off. The only people to suffer are the scientists, whose careers may be blighted by making unpopular discoveries, and the public, who lose the benefit of their research.

This process of keeping science from the public and the network of threats - overt and implied - that protects it is undermining democracy. A democracy without access to balanced and truthful information on which to base its decisions is little better than a crude Third World dictatorship in which the people are compelled to accept the dictator's interpretation of the world, however false and fanciful. A dictatorship will make many mistakes and bad decisions. So the theft of ideas has rather deeper implications for the nation than social security fraud.

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The Australian public donates $11 billion every year to fund research, and it deserves $11 billion's worth of honest answers, however uncomfortable they may make various individuals, elites and institutions. The public isn't getting even a fraction of this.

The muzzling of science is not peculiar to Australia. In the US in recent months there have been strident protests about the silencing of scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and leading American scientists have put their careers on the line to defy it.

Within our own institutions faceless, unaccountable people are daily making decisions about what science Australians are allowed to know and not know. And they punish those scientists brave or foolhardy enough to dissent.

Perhaps it is too pessimistic to warn we may be entering another dark age. There is yet time to turn aside. But we have certainly entered a period in our history when more new knowledge is less accessible to more people than ever before, and Australia will be the poorer for it.

Societies work best and prosper most when knowledge flows freely. We accept that principle in education. We saw it work in the Green revolution, which saved billions from starvation, and the healthcare revolution, which saved billions more. It is time Australian science was set free.

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First published in The Australian on MArch 8, 2006.



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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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