Australia’s environmental scientists intimidated, silenced by threats of job loss

by | Jan 17, 2021 | Energy & Environment

The silencing of environmental scientists, as revealed in a study late last year, profoundly damages our democracy, wastes taxpayers’ money, takes a huge personal toll, allows fake news to proliferate and short-changes the public. Elizabeth Minter reports.

“I declared the (action) unsafe. I was overruled and … was told to be silent or never have a job again.”

“We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat.”

“I was directly intimidated by phone and Twitter by (a senior public servant).”

“… governments allow (industry) to treat data collected as commercial in confidence. This means experts most able to comment on the details of big mining and construction projects are hopelessly conflicted and legally gagged from discussing these projects in public.”

“(Government) staff are rewarded or penalized on the basis of complying with opinions of senior staff regardless of evidence.”

“I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).”

All in a day’s work

All these comments, straight from the mouths of some of Australia’s most esteemed scientists, highlight the threats faced by ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants, whether they are working in government, industry or universities.

The scientists were responding to an online survey as part of a study conducted by academics Don Driscoll, Georgia Garrard, Alexander Kusmanoff, Stephen Dovers, Martine Maron, Noel Preece, Robert Pressey and Euan Ritchie. In an ironic twist, one of the research team’s initial members declined to contribute to the project for fear of losing funding and therefore their job.

As the study’s authors note, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This means important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers. This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny.

Zero Attribution: Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology keeps silent on climate science

Survey methodology

The online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Some 220 people responded:

  • 88 worked in universities
  • 79 worked in local, state or federal government
  • 47 worked in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 could not be classified.

Through multiple-choice and open-ended questions, respondents were asked about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.

Just over half (52%) of the respondents working in government, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Across all the workplaces, communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited. On occasions, contributing to internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) was also prohibited.

Ministers not receiving full information

Some 75% of the scientists surveyed reported having refrained from contributing to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional or social media. A small number self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

For scientists working in government, the main reasons they didn’t comment was because of attitudes of senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of what would happen to their career prospects (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged those working in government from speaking publicly.

Almost 60% of scientists working in government and 36% of scientists in industry reported that internal communications were modified.

One government respondent said:

“Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).”

University scientists, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

Critical conservation issues suppressed

The most common issue on which information was suppressed was threatened species. About half of industry and government scientists, and 28% of academics, said their commentary was constrained.

Scientists working in government also reported not being able to comment on logging and climate change. One said:

“We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.”

Academics, meanwhile, felt they could not talk about feral animals. One said:

“By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.”

Scientists working in industry, more than any other sectors, were not able to comment on the effects of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One said:

“A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.”

The system is broken

Of those scientists who had spoken publicly about their research, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some who had suppressed information had suffered mental health effects.

“As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.”

Others reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field because of speaking out.

Change is needed

As witnessed by the past four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, it has never been more important to ensure that the public are exposed to facts and information from trusted sources.

But, said one scientist who responded to the survey:

“I could see that social and media debate was exploiting the lack of information to perpetuate incorrect …interpretations … to further their own agendas.”

As the study’s authors noted: “A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.”

Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

The study was published late last year in Conservation Letters, a journal of the Society for Conversation Biology.

Bureau of Meteorology: under pressure to toe the Coalition line on climate change?

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in The Conversation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Minter

Elizabeth Minter

A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz is the editor of Michael West Media. Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years. A former professional tennis player who represented Australia in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons). Her Twitter handle is @LizMinter_

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Sober reading, but totally unsurprising. British-Australian culture continues to privilege, even require, a determined assault on the Australian environment. The thing that has really changed since Maralinga days is not so much tougher green re-regulation, but that the corporate and governmental spin is much more pervasive and cunning.

    Our environment laws are designed to fail. GDP rules. Outside of a radical reconnect with indigenous landscape values, I contend, we can only expect a continuation of our well-documented and broad-based environmental decline.

  2. Avatar

    It is not just scientists, and it is not recent.
    20 years ago I ran a small innovation grant finding program that had been outsourced from the department concerned to a company limited by guarantee, with a partly commercial. and very senior board at the insistence of the then PM Howard.
    The Department hated it. The commercial outcomes were way in excess of anything they had run themselves after 3 years.
    Under the contract, there was a program assessment done by one of the major accounting firms.
    I read and agreed with most of the findings contained in the draft. However, the final document was entirely different, being the last of several drafts.
    As the partner of the consulting firm told me after I had blown up at a board meeting where it was presented, if they wanted to be paid, they had to deliver a report the department was happy with.
    just a pity the report was absolute bullshit, contrary to any of the data we had, and the feedback from those who had been involved from industry.
    It left an enormously sour taste.

  3. Avatar

    I am so sad that many scientists are threatened with forms of censorship – may civil, church and educational leaders publicly praise their work, call on both governments and media to be more honest, and encourage the public to become more informed and commit to supporting them.

  4. Avatar

    The Liberal Party is not so different to the Chinese Communist party.

    Control of “the message”.
    Suppression of dissent.
    Prosecution of whistle blowers.
    Secret trials.

  5. Avatar

    Before leaving my career as a govt and contracting ecologist for big firms, I can say I’ve been physically intimidated, threatened with job loss, bribed and ostracised on many occasions going over the last ten years. Nothing new here or startling to most how knows and works in this area. ‘The client is always right’, that is the mantra now, not just of consultancy firms but of the government ‘regulators’ too.

  6. Avatar

    It is truly terrible when a Govt. forces academics and scientists to be silent on issues that effect our future. Politicians are just the temporary caretakers and as such have no right to “politicise facts” to suit their ideological agenda. It’s our world and we need to be able choose policies based on facts not one party’s ideologies. Great article

  7. Avatar

    you forgot the academics not standing up for free speech . The influence of foreign governments in our universities on other issues . It would be a better article tgo include this

  8. Avatar

    Years ago when I was the GM of the Sugar Research Institute, I ran an agenda known as the Sugar Industry Renewable Energy (SIRE) program. In those years (1) senior people in CSIRO told me they were forbidden to comment favourably on ethanol for fuel use, the minister at the time pretty well in thrall to the oil and mining lobbyists, (2) the head of Australia’s largest sugar company expressed his displeasure “because so far as the sugar industry is concerned we are the ethanol industry” and (3) officials from the Australian Greenhouse Office opposed the classification of biomass energy as renewable. It is little consolation to me that the SRI no longer exists as a research organisation, and that the Australian sugar industry is now predominantly foreign owned. But then, hardly surprising given the complete absence of cohesive policy in this area.

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