The national science agency CSIRO’s decision to gag its scientists is a blow to the institution’s 80-year record of scientific free speech in Australia. Denying the media, public and industry free access to scientific research which is 90 per cent funded by the public and much of it of high public interest, is also a slap in the face for the Australian community.
The freedom of scientists to speak out and share their knowledge and insights is one of the fundamentals of a modern knowledge-based democracy.
In its latest Policy on Public Comment, tabled in the Senate Estimates (pdf file 988KB) recently, CSIRO says its “staff are encouraged to communicate”. It then sets down no fewer than seven new prohibitions and restrictions to stop them doing so.
The first is, “No staff, other than those listed ... should comment to the media unless they have been granted permission to do so”. It turns out that those authorised are top management and the heads of CSIRO Divisions or Flagships. Around 1,800 other scientists are gagged, under pain of “disciplinary action”.
CSIRO is the organisation which has uncovered most of what we know about the continent of Australia - its animals and plants, its landscapes, waters, soils and geology. The free flow of its science has been in no small way responsible for the $90 billion in export income earned today by the farm, minerals and energy sectors.
It now seems that this knowledge is to be withheld from Australians, who actually own it, unless a senior CSIRO bureaucrat gives permission.
Under the new rules a CSIRO agricultural researcher attending a farmers’ field day is now prohibited from answering the question of an agricultural reporter at the same event, without first seeking permission from a head office hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. An ABC or national daily journalist ringing up, on deadline, for informed comment on some major world scientific event will have to await the decision of the CSIRO censors before she or he can speak to a scientist.
In an on-record comment provided to the Senate Estimates Committee, CSIRO stated:
The Public Comment Policy … is simply a revised version of a previous organisational policy that has been in place for a number of years.
Not true! CSIRO scientists have never in the history of the organisation been subject to such restriction, prohibition and censorship as the new policy imposes, under overt threat of punishment.
To describe it as “simply revised” is a fresh sample of the spin which CSIRO’s senior management has been frequently charged with dishing out, in numerous national media over recent years. Reversed would be more truthful. Ravaged would be not inappropriate. Recidivist might even be entertained. But not “revised”.
From the public’s standpoint the most alarming aspect of this is that science carried out in the national interest, with public sanction and public money, now appears to be subject to the same kind of repression, avoidance of public scrutiny and spin that industry has long used to deny the findings of science.
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