Gagging scientists about marine parks

14 08 2011

© Louisa Gouliamaki AFP

Apologies to my readers for the lack of a post this past week – I’ve been attending the Ecological Society of America‘s 96th Annual Meeting in an extremely hot (42 °C) Austin, Texas. As usual, I’ll provide a synopsis of the conference in a little bit, but I have some rather worrisome reports about the marine park process in Australia with which to regale you first.

My last post was the reproduction of a letter cosigned by over 150 marine scientists (mostly from Australia, including me) who are concerned that the a proposed network of marine reserves in the Commonwealth waters of the South West bioregional marine planning region is not based on sound scientific principles, and is instead a mash-up of what amounts to leftovers that industry hasn’t yet found a way to exploit. Not the best way to plan for marine biodiversity conservation in the long run.

After the post went live, I had a few interesting (and frightening) e-mail exchanges with a few colleagues who work for various Australian marine science institutions who complained that they were forbidden to cosign the letter. What? What? What? What? What?

Yes, scientific gagging has reared its ugly head yet again in Australia. The last really big accusation of scientist-gagging happened in 2009 when one CSIRO climate scientist accused his employers of censorship of his emissions-trading report. Needless to say, the accusation caused quite a stir in the media and within the CSIRO itself, prompting said organisation to provide a response claiming that no, of course, they would NEVER censor their scientists (eyebrows raised).

Well, it has happened again, although this time, it involves at least some elements of the CSIRO oligarchy and another semi-public marine science institution, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

Now, I cannot name individuals, because, well, people could lose their jobs. Yes, it’s that dodgy. But I will name and shame institutions, because this is frankly quite unacceptable.

The first person from AIMS told me that he/she had been told explicitly from his oligarchs that he was not, under any circumstances, allowed to cosign the letter of concern, mainly because it criticised government policy (and dear me, one couldn’t have a facet of government criticise another, could one?).

The second bit of correspondence hailed from another colleague who assisted in putting together the 2010 ‘OPEN LETTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER AND LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION – SCIENCE SUPPORTING MARINE PROTECTED AREAS‘ (which I also cosigned). That person informed that in that case, CSIRO employees were only permitted to cosign if they did so as private citizens (i.e., notice that CSIRO doesn’t appear anywhere in the document), and many AIMS employees are noticeably absent. That in itself is dodgy enough.

This year’s letter, however, was worse still, with no CSIRO or AIMS people listed whatsoever. The case isn’t clear-cut though because another CSIRO marine scientist based at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart claimed that he/she “didn’t withdraw from the letter and would like [his/her] name on there. …Please put my name back on, I am not sure why it was dropped”. Strange.

To cap all this off, it seems like Commonwealth gagging of their associated marine scientists runs rather deep. I leave you with a (paraphrased) statement by one of the above-mentioned colleagues regarding previous dealings:

“…during the years that I was working as a consultant on freshwater policy, I was strongly critical of both State and Commonwealth Government (continued inaction to implement official policy over years, even decades). Yet the Commonwealth Government, over some years, continued to employ me as a consultant or sub-consultant. I often thought that if I was in China, I would probably have been put behind bars for the work which in Australia I was encouraged to do. Later I moved to the marine policy area, where my work was rather differently received by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) who tried to undermine and delay my investigations into fishery management.

My own view is that senior management in some government agencies are unnecessarily worried about ‘differing views’, while other agencies have a much healthier approach. People, whether experts or not, will always differ in the interpretation of data – and discussion of these differences is always useful. Most people understand that – but a new breed of managers appear frightened by the idea.”

I can also claim that even I have been under the microscope of a certain agency in South Australia who did not want me speaking to politicians about the importance of marine reserves. Clearly we do not have an entirely open science community here in Australia – much work needs to be done to maintain scientific freedom and the right to criticise flawed policies. This is the essence of who we are and what we do.

CJA Bradshaw


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3 responses

14 08 2011
octopus

This sort of government gagging also happened recently in South Australia with the SA marine parks process. I was shocked at how vehemently state government employees had been told not to comment on the state govt marine parks proposal, and at how scared they were. It raises the ethical question of the grey area – where does the professional life stop and the personal life start in these sorts of debates? Why can’t a govt professional comment as a private citizen? I am extremely frustrated and really blown away at how bad this situation is.

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14 08 2011
Tom Keen

Great commentary, thanks. This really is worrying. Have you considered writing an open letter (without going overboard with open letters) about this very issue? I’m sure you’d find plenty of scientists who would be happy to sign something which promotes more openess in the scientific community. Might help propel this into the mainstream media. It is a touchy issue which makes it tricky though, I guess.

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14 08 2011
Rev. F. Mark Mealing, Ph.D.

We have a similar problem in British Columbia, Canada, where Federal Fisheries scientists, some of whom have criticized primitive Fish Farm methods & others who have linked catastrophic viral disezse of wild fish to infection by penned fish, have been muzzled in similar ways. As if both Aussie & Canuck governments were in effect conspiring together….

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