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.
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.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in The Conversation.
A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz was the editor of Michael West Media until June 2021. 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).