Scientific independence is more than media releases
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
Just before Christmas a directive from the new Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research mandated that all ‘strategic' media releases, including those dealing with climate change, must be consistent with the Government's key messages and in particular be vetted by the Prime Minister's office.
CSIRO flatly refused to comply and pointed out that Kevin Rudd had been a vocal critic of ‘science censorship and government spin' while in opposition. This appears to be the end of the public spat, but it is unlikely to be the beginning of scientific independence.
The loss of independent scientific advice began more than twenty years ago, when a radical change occurred in what was considered important research and how science was to be funded.
In the 1980s public-good program funding was replaced by funding for individual projects with limited lifetimes. Whole departments have since emerged with researchers dependent on maintaining a public profile for their work or risk becoming redundant. Furthermore, the salaries of individual scientists are now often funded as a part-charge against several different projects and they are encouraged to work in collaboration with other scientists through Cooperative Research Centres.
Much of CSIRO's climate change research is now designed to grab media headlines, rather than to extend our knowledge of the natural world or to test falsifiable hypotheses. For example, two years ago a CSIRO report for the New South Wales government titled ‘Climate Change in New South Wales' used scenario modelling to conclude that as a consequence of climate change there is potential for more frequent droughts, heat-waves, high waves, rainstorms and extreme winds-far from representing groundbreaking original research such statements merely represent speculation about one or a few possible climate futures.
If scientific independence is to be resurrected in Australia there will be a need to re-examine how science is funded and even encourage competition between government agencies and universities, while at the same time maintaining security of tenure for individuals. Indeed, it will require much more than press freedom to make science independent again.