ABC Science By environment reporter Nick Kilvert 9 September 2020
Information on threatened species was reported as the most commonly suppressed, according to a new survey of researchers.(Supplied: Harrison Warne)
More than half of environmental scientists working for Australian federal and state governments report having been “prohibited from communicating scientific information”, according to the results of a new survey.
Of the more than 200 environmental scientists from government, university and non-government organisations (NGOs) consulted for the survey, those working for government reported the highest rates of suppression or interference in communicating their work publicly.
The findings suggest crucial information isn’t reaching the public and that environmental decisions aren’t based on the best available data, according to report co-author Euan Ritchie from Deakin University.
“I wasn’t surprised it’s happening, but I was surprised by the extent and range of ways it’s happening. It was quite disturbing to see that even internal communication, sharing of information within organisations was being suppressed,” Dr Ritchie said.
“Functional democracies rely on an informed voting public. If the best scientific data and information isn’t available then that’s a real problem.”
One respondent claimed that government action or inaction over a particular issue influenced whether they could speak out.
“We are often forbidden [from] talking about the true impacts of say a threatening process … especially if the government is doing little to mitigate that threat … In this way the public often remains in the dark about the true state and trends of many species,” the respondent said.
Conveying information on threatened species was most commonly reported to have been the subject of suppression or interference, according to the report published in Conservation Letters this week.
Australia has one of the worst records globally for mammal extinctions and increased scientific communication and protection is vital, Dr Ritchie said.
“[According to our data] government scientists are the ones being most suppressed,“ he said.
“The threatened species list is over 1,800 species long and they’re not recovering. It shows a lack of governance and transparency in what we’re doing about the extinction crisis.”
Government workers also said they had been restricted from speaking out on climate change and logging.
Of the government respondents who had experienced suppression of their work, senior management was cited as the most common source, followed by workplace policy and in 63 per cent of cases, a minister’s office.
Not speaking out impacting mental health
Some respondents said they suffered negative mental health impacts as a result of having their findings suppressed.(Getty Images: Ted Mead)
In some cases, researchers also reported practising self-censorship out of concern for their careers or out of concern that they would be misrepresented by the media.
Environmental scientists working in industry were the next most likely to have experienced suppression of their work with 38 per cent reporting some sort of interference.
Industry respondents said they were most constrained in talking about the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing.
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Nine per cent of university researchers said they had experienced some sort of suppression or interference in communicating their work.
One university respondent said they had negative push back after they proposed an article on the impacts of mining, which they attributed to their university receiving funding from a mining company.
Some respondents said they had suffered negative mental health impacts after having their work suppressed, and others reported than career advancement was stifled.
“As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact,” one respondent wrote.
“But after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.”
This was the biggest surprise about the results of the survey, Dr Ritchie said.
“It’s quite upsetting to see the personal toll it was having on people’s mental health,” he said.
“The people who are best equipped to deal with some of these ecological issues aren’t able to get their work out there.”
‘You’re making a choice’
But the degree to which environmental scientists working in government and industry are restrained from communication didn’t come as a surprise to Vanessa Adams from the University of Tasmania.
It’s fairly common practice for industry workers to be prevented from speaking out about findings that may impact the company they work for, and for government workers to be restricted from commenting on matters of government policy, Dr Adams said.
“I think it’s fair enough that if you are a scientist working in a commercial environment you’re making a choice to work in an environment that is quite constrained,” she said.
However, it becomes an issue when industry may become aware of an environmental impact that could affect policy or their license to proceed with an activity or development, she said.
“I think the authors are correct that it is probably bad for the environment, but it doesn’t surprise me that those employees are not in a position to talk publicly about their science.”
Leaked emails from the CSIRO in 2015 revealed that some employees felt the organisation was “missing in action” when it came to providing advice on climate change.
At the time there were concerns from within that they were having to operate “behind closed doors” with the government.
Spokesperson Huw Morgan said in 2017 that the CSIRO avoided contributing to certain inquires because of a desire to focus on research and not be seen to “advocate, defend or publicly canvass the merits of government or opposition policies”.
There are a range of changes that need to be made to help reduce interference in communicating science, according to Dr Ritchie.
He said that contracts need to specifically address the freedom of employees to speak honestly about their findings without fear of having their careers impacted.
“There needs to be freedom for employees to communicate their findings with their colleagues and the public.”