Politician Directed Science

I wrote a few months ago on then Resources Minister Martin Ferguson’s claims to judge good science from bad based on nothing more than his affiliation to the fossil fuel industry.

Based on overseas experience it is about to get a lot worse. US Senator Lamar Alexander is introducing a bill to allow politicians to determine what scientists can research. I can’t see the bill getting anywhere. Even if it passes congress scientific research is one area where Obama has not disappointed, and as the article notes, he has spoken out in defence of peer review.

However, we’ve already seen examples of the coalition mocking important scientific research. While it is possible to dismiss this as the sort of thing oppositions do, in combination with efforts of the US Republicans, to whom Liberal Party’s right increasingly looks for guidance, suggest this could be exactly the sort of thing we could see here under an Abbott government.

I’d like to add a little nuance here. It’s entirely appropriate for politicians to set the broad parameters of scientific research – for example to say that new sources of energy need higher priority, or to promote research unlikely to be done elsewhere. That, however, is not what this bill does. By specifying that only national security and the economy can justify research it instantly wipes out all basic research, along with anything directed towards making society fairer or providing environmental benefits that cannot be easily captured by current economic measures.

Turning the entire structure of funding around would probably not be an easy, or at least swift, task for Abbott, particularly if he lacks control of the Senate. However, Canada offers another example of the approach they may take. Rather than stopping research from taking place the Harper government is simply acting to prevent anyone from finding out about it. (Hat tip Anna Yeung).

The effectiveness of this is somewhat limited. They can’t stop the work being read by other scientists and thus influencing global research. Moreover, with both science and the media increasingly globalised it will often be the case that Canadian researchers will have foreign collaborators who cannot be gagged, with news of the research filtering back. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that such a program can reduce the public’s access to the research they need to hear about to make informed decisions. Applied widely enough it would also put me out of a job, since I doubt Australasian Science could keep publishing if too many research institutions couldn’t tell us what they are doing. A much weaker version of this was applied under Howard so it is easily credible that the next Coalition minister for science will be following in Canada’s footsteps.

It hardly needs mentioning, but the hypocrisy of this is breathtaking. These are the people who constantly accuse climate scientists of jumping to the tune of politicians. These are the people who like to portray themselves as the defenders of freedom of speech. Methinks they doth protest too much.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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