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Australia’s environmental scientists intimidated, silenced by threats of job loss

Australia’s environmental scientists intimidated, silenced by threats of job loss, Michael West Media, by Elizabeth Minter | Jan 17, 2021 The silencing of environmental scientists, as revealed in a study late last year, profoundly damages our democracy, wastes taxpayers’ money, takes a huge personal toll, allows fake news to proliferate and short-changes the public. Elizabeth Minter reports.

“I declared the (action) unsafe. I was overruled and … was told to be silent or never have a job again.”

“We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat.”

“I was directly intimidated by phone and Twitter by (a senior public servant).”

“… governments allow (industry) to treat data collected as commercial in confidence. This means experts most able to comment on the details of big mining and construction projects are hopelessly conflicted and legally gagged from discussing these projects in public.”

“(Government) staff are rewarded or penalized on the basis of complying with opinions of senior staff regardless of evidence.”

“I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).”

All in a day’s work

All these comments, straight from the mouths of some of Australia’s most esteemed scientists, highlight the threats faced by ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants, whether they are working in government, industry or universities.

The scientists were responding to an online survey as part of a study conducted by academics Don Driscoll, Georgia Garrard, Alexander Kusmanoff, Stephen Dovers, Martine Maron, Noel Preece, Robert Pressey and Euan Ritchie. In an ironic twist, one of the research team’s initial members declined to contribute to the project for fear of losing funding and therefore their job.

As the study’s authors note, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This means important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers. This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny.

Survey methodology……….

Ministers not receiving full information

Some 75% of the scientists surveyed reported having refrained from contributing to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional or social media. A small number self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

For scientists working in government, the main reasons they didn’t comment was because of attitudes of senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of what would happen to their career prospects (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged those working in government from speaking publicly.

Almost 60% of scientists working in government and 36% of scientists in industry reported that internal communications were modified…………

Critical conservation issues suppressed

The most common issue on which information was suppressed was threatened species. About half of industry and government scientists, and 28% of academics, said their commentary was constrained.

Scientists working in government also reported not being able to comment on logging and climate change…………..

The system is broken

Of those scientists who had spoken publicly about their research, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests…….

Change is needed

As witnessed by the past four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, it has never been more important to ensure that the public are exposed to facts and information from trusted sources…….

The study was published late last year in Conservation Letters, a journal of the Society for Conversation Biology. https://www.michaelwest.com.au/australias-environmental-scientists-intimidated-silenced-by-threats-of-job-loss/

January 18, 2021 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA, civil liberties

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