A succession of conservative governments in Australia cut funding for climate science and censored scientific reports, and researchers say political organising is key in beating back attacks on scientific integrity, writes Harry Pearl.
AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS are rallying behind their counterparts in the United States amid fears that President Donald Trump could ram through a damaging anti-science agenda over the next four years.
Trump’s moves to censor federal government scientific departments and undermine the integrity of climate research have triggered sympathy and anger in Australia, where many scientists believe the country’s conservative government has conducted a similar assault on science over the past few years.
“My sense is that morale among the science fraternity in the U.S. is extremely low at the moment,” said Associate Professor Stuart Khan, a water researcher at the University of New South Wales and one of the organizers of the Australian March for Science. “We want to show that we understand what is going on and we stand in solidarity.”
The United States is an important research partner for Australia and a bilateral science and technology relationship has existed in some form for 48 years.
However, Trump’s recent directives, particularly his administration’s instructions that any data from the EPA must undergo review by political appointees, have many Australian scientists concerned.
“It’s reminiscent of the censorship exerted by political officers in the old Soviet Union,” Dr. Alan Finkel, the chief science advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, told a roundtable discussion in the capital Canberra on Monday. “Every military commander there had a political officer second-guessing his decisions.”
Gag orders aren’t the only sign of Trump’s apparent anti-science stance. His pick to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has made a career of challenging the agencies environmental regulations. Trump has also reportedly tapped vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr., who has erroneously linked vaccines with autism, to lead a commission into immunization safety.
Australian scientists have not faced directives limiting interaction with the media and public like those imposed by Trump, but several said political interference has taken different forms.
“It’s primarily lack of funding, pulling out government support, and public campaigns that undermine and belittle scientific achievements,” Khan said.
After taking office in 2013, former prime minister Tony Abbott slashed science funding, abolished climate science programs and chose not to appoint a science minister for the first time since 1931.
Funding for Australia’s main research grants body, the Australian Research Council, was cut by $74.9 million; the national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, had its funding slashed by $111 million.
As a result, severe job losses — including up to 110 roles in the organization’s Oceans and Atmosphere division — were announced by CSIRO in February 2016. The decision was reversed and extra resources allocated to climate change research only after a public outcry and widespread international criticism.
“It was a brutal act to try and force compliance and control because they didn’t regard the organisation to be sufficiently beholden to government directives,” Dr. Michael Borgas, a climate scientist and former president of the CSIRO staff association, said.
Abbott, who once declared that climate change was “absolute crap,” was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull in a party coup in September 2015, but key science policies have remained intact.
In fact, the Turnbull government has proven it’s not above scrubbing science from the record.
In May 2016, it was revealed the Australian government intervened to have all mentions of the country removed from a UNESCO report on climate change impacts at world heritage areas.
One of three Australian case studies, the Great Barrier Reef, experienced its worst coral bleaching ever in 2015-2016, an event scientists said was 175 times more likely because of human-caused climate change.
More than 93 percent of the smaller reefs that make up the wider ecosystem were affected by bleaching and preliminary surveys have shown widespread reef mortality.
“I was confidentially told by the editor of the report that the Australian government asked that the Great Barrier Reef case study and two others that referred to Australia were taken out of the report,” said Professor Will Steffen, a climate science expert at the Australia National University, who reviewed the Great Barrier Reef chapter.
The Australian government later admitted the request was made because the reef’s inclusion may have impacted tourism.
Borgas, who spent 15 years advocating for employees at CSIRO, said there were lessons from the Australian experience that could be useful to scientists in the U.S.
Participating in a trade union or scientific society that advocated for the rights of scientists was a good start, he said. But he also urged U.S. scientists to keep speaking out about threats to science integrity.
“Scientists sometimes don’t like to be politically engaged,” said Borgas. “But it’s something you have to do. You have to learn to do it.”