Monday, February 13, 2006

Australian government censoring climate scientists?

Why does Australia always seem to follow everything the US does?

A few weeks ago there was furore in the US about allegations that the Bush administration censored leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

Now, ABC online reports that three CSIRO scientists have accused the Australian Government of trying to censor their public comments about climate change.

One says he was asked not to write in a government publication about the potential for millions of people to be displaced by climate change. Another says he was told not to make any comments indicating he disagreed with government policy on emissions. A third says that government censorship "happens all the time" and that he was recently told by his corporate centre that the Prime Minister's department had requested the CSIRO "not say anything about ethanol".

The Environment Minister denies these claims and says he'd welcome a CSIRO investigation into them. The story is on Four Corners tonight and should be interesting viewing.

It all reminds me of the cartoon above, which I saw on the US Environmental Economics blog.


Well I watched the show last night and, I don't know, it seemed like a bit of a beat up. What seemed to clear to me from the show was:
  1. CSIRO is petrified that if it annoys government, it might lose funding.
  2. CSIRO management tells its scientists what they can and can't talk about when they're representing CSIRO (eg, presenting at conferences on behalf of CSIRO). It may be that scientists also feel they can't make any adverse comments in their personal capacity, but there was no evidence of that in the show.
  3. The form of those restrictions seems to be that they can talk about science but not government policy. For example, they can talk about the impact of emissions and the need to reduce them but shouldn't comment on what the government should do to reduce them.
  4. It wasn't clear from the show what the case was where the science is part of the policy debate. For example, it's one thing to tell scientists (as was alleged in the show) not to advocate carbon trading - that's not really a scientific debate (although there are scientific issues involved). It's a different thing to tell them not to talk about the pros and cons of ethanol from a scientific point of view (which was also alleged) - this is a policy debate but the science is right at the centre of it.

Now, I don't think what CSIRO is doing is a good thing at all - I think the organisation should be big enough to handle its scientists expressing their professional views about policy options. But it's not really a scandal. There was never any suggestion in the show that scientists were ever asked not to talk about the results of their climate research. Nor was there any evidence that these directions came from government or indeed from outside the organisation itself. This is quite different from what was going on in NASA.

In my view, we should be very worried if the government or CSIRO is censoring the science but there are enough groups running with the policy debate to not be too worried if CSIRO scientists aren't participating in it. CSIRO really needs to sort out, however, what their apparent policy of "talk about science but not policy" means when the science is central to the policy.

Anyway, the full transcripts of the interviews are online at the Four Corners website, so have a look and decide for yourself.


pedaller said...

Strange story, afterall the CSIRO has been involved in numerous studies regarding ethanol over the past 10 years. Indeed the Government itself commissioned a joint report by the CSIRO, the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics and the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics on whether there were environmental or other benefits in replacing fossil fuels with biofuels.
The general gist of the CSIRO reports to date seem to be that there is really no environmental benefit, as regards to carbon dioxide emissions at least, in E10. But then, any high school science student with a calculator can come to that conclusion.

David Jeffery said...

I guess the idea was that the government didn't want CSIRO to be talking about the problems with ethanol at the same time as the government was promoting it as basically the only renewable they'd give any support to.

pedaller said...

Indeed, it could be summarised as much ado about nothing.