Melissa Christi
Academic Freedom

Scientific advice on the environment and threatened species is being withheld from public debate, new research reveals.

Results of an industry-wide survey on science suppression in Australia, conducted by The Ecological Society of Australia, have been published in Conservation Letters.

The survey found that approximately half of government respondents, and nearly 40 per cent of industry respondents, had been prohibited from public communication about their research. This includes discussion of the impacts of logging, mining, land clearing and climate change.

“Some of our country’s best scientists are being prevented from sharing their science with the media or on social media,” says Dr Don Driscoll, ESA’s immediate Past President, who led the survey.

“But even more alarmingly scientists are also being prohibited from sharing their research findings with their colleagues and policymakers via journal papers, conference articles and technical memos.”

The consequences of this kind of suppression are profound. Policies related to climate change, bushfires, or development regulation risk not being informed by the best science, and decision-makers do not always have full knowledge when making decisions.

“This is seriously concerning because it means policymakers are making decisions on big environmental issues like threatened species and climate change without seeing all the information available.”

According to the survey:

  • Around half of industry and government respondents and over a quarter of university respondents reported suppression of advice on threatened species.
  • Almost 40 per cent of industry respondents reported gagging related to mining, urban development or clearing native vegetation.
  • A quarter of government respondents reported gagging regarding logging and climate change.

Given most universities support the notion of academic freedom—where academics should be free to teach, research and communicate within their area of expertise—it was surprising that over a third of university respondents felt unable to speak out about pest animal policies and management,” says Don.

These topics are some of the most demanding and complex environmental issues facing our society. Australia has the worst record of mammal extinctions globally, with the key threats being introduced predators and feral herbivores, changed fire regimes, and land clearing.

Australia is also regarded as one of the world’s eleven deforestation fronts and is likely to suffer widespread biodiversity loss from climate change and habitat loss over coming decades. Yet respondents to the ESA survey reported that information about these critical topics has been distorted and suppressed.

“Conservation dollars could be more wisely invested, and interventions more effectively targeted, if information was freely communicated,” says Don.

220 ecologists replied to the Ecological Society of Australia’s open call to participate in the survey between October 2018 and February 2019

If you wish to document a current case of science suppression in Australia, please fill in our form here.

Read the full paper: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/conl.12757

See the video here: https://youtu.be/d5eyym6nrHE

To read the ESA’s Academic Freedom 10-Point Plan, click here.

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