The Conservative Agenda for Ecology

Many politicians that are conservative are true conservatives in the traditional meaning of the term. Many business people are conservative in the same way, and that is a good thing. But there exist in the world a set of conservatives that have a particularly destructive agenda based on a general belief that evidence, particularly scientific evidence, is not any more important as a basis for action than personal beliefs. Climate change is the example of the day, but there are many others from the utility of vaccinations for children, to items more to an ecologist’s interest like the value of biodiversity. In a sense this is a philosophical divide that is currently producing problems for ecologists in the countries I know most about, Canada and Australia, but possibly also in the USA and Britain.

The conservative political textbook says cut taxes and all will be well, especially for the rich and those in business, and then say ‘we have no money for ‘<fill in the blank here> ‘so we must cut funding to hospitals, schools, universities, and scientists’. The latest example I want to discuss is from the dismemberment of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia by the current conservative government.

CSIRO was sent up in the 1950s to do research for the betterment of the people of Australia. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was one of the world premier research organizations. If you do not believe this you can look at how many important papers, awards, and the occasional Nobel Prize came out of this organization. It had at this time perhaps 8500 employees in more than 25 Divisions. Divisions varied in size but in general they would have about 200-300 scientists and technicians. Divisions were run by a Chief who was a scientist and who decided the important directions for research in his or her area, whether it be horticulture, wildlife, energy technology, animal science, or mathematics and statistics. CSIRO itself was led by eminent scientists who provided some guidance to the Divisions but left the directions of science to the Chiefs and their scientists. It was a golden development for Australian science and a model for science that was appreciated all around the world.

This of course is dreamland in today’s world. So by the late 1980s the Australian federal government began determining scientific priorities for CSIRO. We know what science is important, the new leaders said, so do this. This would work well if it was not guided by politicians and MBAs who had no scientific training and knew nothing about science past or present. Piled on this were two neo-conservative philosophies. First, science is important only if it generates money for the economy. Coal mining triumphs wildlife research. Second, science in the public interest is not to be encouraged but cut. The public interest does not generate money. Why this change happened can be declared a mystery but it seemed to happen all around the western world in the same time frame. Perhaps it had something to do with scientific research that had the obvious message that one ought to do something about climate change or protecting biodiversity, things that would cost money and might curtail business practices.

Now with the current 2014 budget in Australia we have a clear statement of this approach to ecological science. The word from on high has come down within CSIRO that, because of cuts to their budget, one goal is as follows: “Reduce terrestrial biodiversity research (“reduced investment in terrestrial biodiversity with a particular focus on rationalising work currently conducted across the “Managing Species and Natural Ecosystems in a Changing Climate” theme and the “Building Resilient Australian Biodiversity Assets” theme in these Divisions”).Translated, this means about 20% of the staff involved in biodiversity research will be retrenched and work will continue in some areas at a reduced level. At a time when rapid climate change is starting, it boggles the mind that some people at some high levels think that supporting the coal and iron ore industry with government-funded research is more important than studies on biodiversity. (If you appreciate irony, this decision comes in a week when it is discovered that the largest coal company in Australia, mining coal on crown land, had profits of $16 billion last year and paid not one cent of tax.)

So perhaps all this illustrates that ecological research and all public interest research is rather low on the radar of importance in the political arena in comparison with subsidizing business. I should note that at the same time as these cuts are being implemented, CSIRO is also cutting agricultural research in Australia so biodiversity is not the only target. One could obtain similar statistics for the Canadian scene.

There is little any ecologist can do about this philosophy. If the public in general is getting more concerned about climate change, the simplest way to deal with this concern for a politician is to cut research in climate change so that no data are reported on the topic. The same can be said about biodiversity issues. There is too much bad news that the environmental sciences report, and the less information that is available to the public the better. This approach to the biosphere is not very encouraging for our grandchildren.

Perhaps our best approach is to infiltrate at the grass roots level in teaching, tweeting, voting, writing letters, and attending political meetings that permit some discussion of issues. Someday our political masters will realize that the quality of life is more important than the GDP, and we can being to worry more about the future of biodiversity in particular and science in general.

 

Krebs, C.J. 2013. “What good is a CSIRO division of wildlife research anyway?” In Science under Siege: Zoology under Threat, edited by Peter Banks, Daniel Lunney and Chris Dickman, pp. 5-8. Mosman, N.S.W.: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M.M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 355 pp. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4

Shaw, Christopher. 2013. “Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: Public representations of the decision making process.” Global Environmental Change 23 (2):563-571. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.012.

Wilkinson, Todd. 1998. Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books. 364 pp. ISBN 1-55566-211-0

 

One thought on “The Conservative Agenda for Ecology

  1. Michael McBain

    I can’t remember the source for this concept, but several of the recent decisions of the Australian and Canadian governments fall into the category of ‘non-symmetric decisions’, metaphorically described as ‘it takes 500 years to grow that tree, but only a couple of hours to reduce it to sawdust’. CSIRO has suffered the death of a thousand cuts over the past 25 years. You can’t imagine another Nobel Prize coming out of the remaining husk, mainly because of that imposed neocon philosophy. The root of much of the malaise in public political thinking is down to the Thatcherite model of small government, the idea that markets are self-correcting and ‘know what’s best’, and the reduction of everything to economic measurement. The success of Thatcherism across the world is startling; in Australia, hundreds of government enterprises have been flogged off to the highest bidder for a one-off public dividend, and the capacity of government to make social policy decisions compromised as a result. The Harper government’s destruction of its capacity to do science, or even to be advised by its own scientists on what the science actually means, has been severely damaged. An incoming Canadian government of a different hue will find it near-impossible to recreate what was there before, so intense has the scorched-earth policy been [think destruction of scientific librariesas a primary metaphor]. In the US, several cities have discovered the fundamental economic truth that, if taxes are reduced, then you will not have the money necessary to deliver the services your constituents want. If you have also sold the infrastructure that delivers those services, because of a philosophical belief that the private sector is more efficient, then you have compounded a confusion between political beliefs and reality by making an economic decision that can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. The current Australian government doesn’t have a science minister, so there is nobody left to push back against the economic dries. CSIRO has just been a longer time dying than most other public enterprises.

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