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Free the boffins from political interference

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 23 February 2006

Every year Australians contribute about $11 billion of their hard-earned cash - about $550 a head - to science to help make this country more prosperous, healthy, safe and sustainable. How much return they will see from that investment is increasingly open to question.

The Age's report on the greenhouse row, in which leading scientists assert they have been muzzled for trying to lay their science and their expert opinion before the public that funded them, is the latest development in an alarming trend in which our science is being taken away from us - because somebody deems we ought not to know of it.

This trend is pervasive in our scientific institutions today. For various reasons, including political influence, commercial influence, managerial pressure, institutional control, publisher influence, stakeholder pressure, national security and bureaucratic interference, scientific findings and opinion are increasingly withheld. The consequences could be grave, both for Australia and for science.


Imagine, for example, if, 15 years ago, the evidence and expert scientific opinion on the burgeoning salinity crisis had been suppressed. The national action plan would not exist, the science to address and overcome the crisis would not have been done, desperate farmers would be walking off their farms and Australians would be in ignorance of a major threat to our national future.

Such a scenario is entirely possible today because one of the most fundamental principles of science, accepted for 400 years, is being breached - that human knowledge belongs to everyone. Today, knowledge is increasingly withheld, tightly controlled or released in the sanitised doses and with the spin that its overlords consider suitable for public consumption. Scientific institutions have punitive sanctions, legal clauses and the funding threat, overt or implied, to discipline their researchers - and seem ever more willing to use them.

This tendency denies society the right to make balanced judgments in the light of the latest, the best and the most expert information and opinion, about issues of fundamental importance to its future. It attacks one of the underpinning elements of democracy - that there should be free debate based on the facts as well as on community values and beliefs.

It also treats Australians as if they are stupid. That scientific bodies can take the public's money and not permit their researchers to report their findings and conclusions betokens a dangerous arrogance. Furthermore, it retards the process by which science is turned into innovation, economic growth, social and environmental benefit: people who have never heard about a scientific outcome obviously cannot adopt or use it.

This battle was fought - and won - 60 years ago when Australian and British scientists joined in ending government-imposed wartime secrecy. In March 1947, Sir David Rivett, spoke out strongly against "the threat, now much more than a mere threat, to that free trade in scientific knowledge of all kinds, which has been the glory of these last 300 years that have seen the most rapid advance in human knowledge of nature since man began his course".

Rivett's British counterpart, Sir Henry Dale, warned "if national policies fail to free science in peace from the secrecy it accepted as a necessity of war, they will poison its very spirit".


Both men understood that to muzzle science is to deal free inquiry a savage blow, to discourage young scientists and to deprive the people of its benefits. The answer, in Australia's case, was to create the CSIRO in 1949 as a publicly funded research institution designed to create knowledge and help it to flow freely to industry and society.

The $110 billion our farming and mining industries earn today is in no small way due to this enlightened policy. So too is the growing insight we have about the nature of our continent and how we should live here.

Australians in the 1940s saw plainly the dangers in their science being muzzled, appropriated and withheld. The fact that more and more eminent scientists are today speaking in protest ought to alert us to a similar peril.

The Federal Government, which is committed, in the words of the Prime Minister, to building "a world-class innovation system" ought to be profoundly concerned that the investment it makes in science on behalf of taxpayers is being white-anted in this fashion.

Societies work best and prosper most when knowledge flows freely. We accept that principle in education. We saw it work in the Green Revolution that saved billions from starvation, and the health-care revolution that saved billions more.

It is time Australian science was set free.

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
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This article was published in The Age on February 14, 2006.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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