Academic freedom in ecology and conservation

to invite ESA members to convene a new working group tentatively named: Academic freedom in ecology and conservation.  

To understand the limitations on academic freedom imposed on government scientists, whether any limitations contravene ESA objectives, or principles of democracy, and to make recommendations to the board for how the ESA could respond, with recommendations available within 6-12 months of convening the group.

Working group composition

Chair: senior ecologist from a university 

University members; 2

Public service members; 2. 

The working group is expected to consult widely with academics and public service scientists from multiple states in its deliberations. It may consult with the Australian Academy of Science, Ecosystem Science Council, March for Science and may invite representatives from these groups to be members on the working group at their discretion.

Attempts by the Trump administration to silence government scientists hit the headlines recently, as opposition to gag rules spawned the March For Science movement.  The March for Science movement stands on four platforms, including Open Communication: "Publicly-funded scientists have a responsibility to communicate their research and public outreach and accessibility of scientific knowledge should be encouraged. Communication of scientific findings and their implications must not be suppressed."  Along similar lines, Australia's Ecosystem Science Council has overseen production of "Foundations for the Future", the Australian ecosystem science long-term plan. This plan highlights as one of six priorities; "a general public that is inspired, informed and empowered with knowledge and understanding of Australian ecosystems."  The report elaborates on this goal: "To put the Australian community in a position to make judgements and decisions about the use and management of their ecosystems, they need to be engaged with and informed about these ecosystems."

The news that government scientists are gagged was somewhat unstartling for Australian scientists who have faced this kind of censorship for many years.  Public servant scientists must agree to abide by codes of conduct that prohibit speaking publically without approval. Approval is frequently denied, especially around politically sensitive issues.  Consequently, the public do not have access to the best information about environmental issues.  This issue was touched on briefly in the context of a democratic society in an article in The Conversation and a communication in Nature, and reviewed in more depth in a recent paper in Conservation Biology (Carroll et al in press).

Professor David Keith mentioned at a debate at the ESA conference in Fremantle that years ago he was encouraged to speak with the media in his role as a government scientist, so alternative models of effective public service appear possible.  

The topic is controversial, and complex. The task of the working group is to canvas the issue from the perspective of government and university scientists to determine whether public service codes of conduct preventing public discussion is at odds with ESA objectives, or principles of democracy. Would alternative models undermine effective government, or make government more accountable for their policies?  What are the possible consequences of a silent public service for community education about controversial environmental issues?  The ESA constitution lists specific objectives of the society in areas of public education and communication; do the constraints on public service scientists prevent our public service members from meeting the goals of the ESA? The working group is expected to make recommendations to the board for how the ESA could respond, within a time frame of 6-12 months.