Tag Archives: muzzling scientists

What is Policy?

One seemingly popular way of muzzling scientists is to declare that they may not comment on issues that impact on government policy. In Canada and in Australia at the present time this kind of general rule seems to be enforced. It raises the serious issue of what is ‘policy’. In practice it appears that some scientific papers that discuss policy can pass the bar because they support the dominant economic paradigm of eternal growth or at least do not challenge it. But the science done by ecologists and environmental scientists often conflicts with current practices and thus confronts the economic paradigm.

There are several dictionary definitions of policy but the one most relevant to this discussion is:

“a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body”

The problem an ecologist faces is that in many countries this “high overall plan for the country” involves continuous economic growth, no limitations on the human population, the minimization of regulations regarding environmental pollution, and no long-term plan about climate change. But probably the largest area of conflict is over economic growth, and any ecological data that might restrict economic growth should be muzzled or at least severely edited.

This approach of governments is only partially effective because in general the government does not have the power to muzzle university scientists who can speak out on any topic, and this has been a comfort to ecologists and environmental scientists. But there are several indirect ways to muzzle these non-government scientists because the government controls some of the radio and TV media that must obtain funding from the federal budget, and the pressure of budget cuts unless ‘you toe the line’ works well. And the government also has indirect controls over research funding so that research that might uncover critical issues can be deemed less important than research that might increase the GNP. All of this serves the current economic paradigm of most of the developed countries.

Virtually all conservation biology research contains clear messages about policy issues, but these are typically so far removed from the day to day decisions made by governments that they can be safely ignored. A national park here or there seems to satisfy many voters who think these biodiversity problems are under control. But I would argue that all of conservation biology and indeed all of ecology is subversive to the dominant economic paradigm of our day so that everything we do has policy implications. If this is correct, telling scientists they may not comment on policy issues is effectively telling them not to do ecological or environmental science.

So we ecologists get along by keeping a minimal profile, a clear mistake at a time when more emphasis should be given to emerging environmental problems, especially long term issues that do not immediately affect voters. There is no major political party in power in North America or Australia that embraces in a serious way what might be called a green agenda for the future of the Earth.

The solution seems to be to convince the voters at large that the ecological world view is better than the economic world view and there are some signs of a slow move in this direction. The recent complete failure of economics as a reliable guide to government policy should start to move us in the right direction, and the recognition that inequality is destroying the social fabric is helpful. But movement is very slow.

Meanwhile ecologists must continue to question policies that are destroying the Earth. We can begin with fracking for oil and gas, and continue to highlight biodiversity losses driven by the growth of population and economic developments that continue the era of oil and natural gas. And keep asking when will we have a green President or Prime Minister?

Let me boil down my point of view. Everything scientists do has policy implications, so if scientists are muzzled by their government, it is a serious violation of democratic freedom of speech. And if a government pays no attention to the findings of science, it is condemning itself to oblivion in the future.

Davis, C., and Fisk, J.M. 2014. Energy abundance or environmental worries? Analyzing public support for fracking in the United States. Review of Policy Research 31(1): 1-16. doi: 10.1111/ropr.12048.

Mash, R., Minnaar, J., and Mash, B. 2014. Health and fracking: Should the medical profession be concerned? South African Medical Journal 104(5): 332-335. doi: 10.7196/SAMJ.7860.

Piketty, T. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Belknap Press, Harvard University, Boston. 696 pp. ISBN 9780674430006

Stiglitz, J.E. 2012. The Price of Inequality. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

 

Open Letter from a Scientist to a Bureaucrat

Let us assume for the moment that I am a scientist who has worked in a government research organization for 25 years under a series of bureaucrats. I have just retired and the object of this letter is to tell a bureaucrat what is good and what is bad about the bureaucratic government system. If you work in a perfect government system, perhaps you do not need to read further.

Dear Sir/Madam:

I would like to offer you some free advice that comes from a scientist who has worked in government for many years. This is presumptuous to be sure in light of our relative positions, but I feel you might benefit from some notes from the trenches.

First, science should never be organized in a top-down manner. We ecologists know about trophic cascades and the consequences it has for the lower trophic levels. You should not tell us what to do because you know nothing about the subject matter of the science, in this case ecology. I note especially that an MBA does not confer infinite wisdom on science matters. So I suggest you consider organizing things bottom-up. Your job is to provide scientists with the technical support, the funding, and the facilities to do their work. I note that this does not preclude you providing us with general areas of science in which we are expected to do our research. If our general position is to study the effectiveness of pollination in California crops, you should not tolerate us going to Africa to study elephant ecology. We appreciate that the government has at least some general ideas of what is critical to study. If they do not, it would be advisable to gather a group of scientists to discuss what the critical problems are in a particular area of science. Scientists do not work in closed rooms and do have a general understanding of what is happening in their field.

Second, do not muzzle us about anything scientific. We do not work for you or for the current government but we do work for the people of Canada or Australia or whatever country, and our mandate is to speak out on scientific questions, to provide evidence based policy guidance and to educate the public when errors are promulgated by people who know nothing about what they speak. This could well include government ministers who are known at least on occasion to utter complete nonsense. Our job is not to support the government’s policies of the day but to provide evidence about scientific questions. In general we scientists do not see government ministers crying out that they know more about brain surgery than trained doctors, so we think the same attitude ought to be taken toward ecologists.

Third, ask your scientists about the time frame of their scientific studies. Most bureaucrats seem to think that, since the world was created in 7 days, scientific work ought to take no more than a year or two or perhaps three. We would like to tell you that many, perhaps most, important ecological questions involve a time frame of 10 years or more, and some require continuous funding and support for periods in excess of 50 years. You apparently did not ask medical scientists to stop working on cancer or malaria after 3 years or even 50 years, so we are uncertain why ecologists should be kept to short time frames for their research. Ecological research is perhaps the most difficult of all the sciences, so if we do not find answers in a few years it is not because we are not working hard enough.

Finally, ask your scientists to publish in national and international journals because that is the corner stone for judging scientific progress. We do not mind having rules about rates of publication. And as a spur please fund your scientists to go to scientific meetings to present their results to the scientific world. And have them communicate to the public what they are doing and what they have found. After all the public pays, so why should they not hear about what has come of their tax dollars.

Your job, in a nutshell, is to support your scientists not to hinder them, to encourage their work, and to speak to the higher levels of government about why funding science is important. And to (at least on occasion) protest about government policies that are not based on scientific evidence. If you are successful in all of this, the people of your country will be the better for it. On the other hand, you may be headed for early retirement if you follow my advice.

I wish you success.

Sincerely yours,

A.B.C. Jones PhD, DSc, FRS, FAA
Retired

In Praise of Luddites

We are certainly in the midst of a new era of luddites but instead of the original concept of a person opposed to technology that would reduce jobs, we now have luddites in politics opposed to scientific information. Not that this is terribly new historically but it seems to be part of a new conservative government agenda. The operating principle of the new luddites is quite simple: what you do not know cannot hurt you. This principle is illustrated every day by a person typing a text message as they walk across a busy road intersection, but it has now been adopted by several governments in western countries. The politicians involved of course would never recognize themselves as luddites but would argue that they are responsible spenders of the taxpayers money. When a large government agency faces a budget cut, what is more responsible than to cut out people who do the environmental work. Close down scientific research stations. Reduce funding for environmental monitoring. Eliminate the need for environmental impact studies. After all what environmental scientist of recent time has ever given good news to the government or indeed done anything to increase GNP. Since environmental problems are large-scale, long-term issues, they need not be dealt with today or even in the next 6 months. The result is that today we are locked in an arms race with environmental scientists arguing that we should do something now about climate change, species under threat, or other ecological problems, and the political world arguing that we can deal with these issues later after we increase economic growth. Since a large part of the research effort that explores environmental trends comes from the government, a simple way to turn down the thermostat is to reduce funding to environmental science and to prevent government scientists from talking to the public.

We awake only when there is an environmental disaster that cannot be covered up. This is a bit like thinking about getting fire insurance once you realize your house is on fire, not exactly forward planning. So we too often continue down the path of the luddite, with elections being fought over the economy with barely a mention of the environment. At a meeting of first nations people recently the opening statement was that we are responsible for the next 7 generations following us, the grandchildren of our grandchildren. What politician could say this with a straight face these days? Don’t worry, she’ll be right.