Time to stand up for scientific integrity

One of the convicted Italian Scientists, Bernardo De Bernardini

One of the convicted Italian Scientists, Bernardo De Bernardini (Photo guardian.co.uk)

The conviction of seven Italian scientists for manslaughter in the wake of the 2009 earthquakes in Italy has been deplored by scientists worldwide.

But are there threats to scientific integrity closer to home and if so, what can be done about it?

CSIRO Staff Association President Dr Michael Borgas discusses how a new campaign for a Scientific Integrity Charter will help protect and advance science research across the federal public sector.

THE RECENT DECISION OF AN ITALIAN COURT to convict six scientists and a government official of manslaughter following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake has sent shock waves around the world, particularly among the global scientific community.

Scientists everywhere received the news from Italy with disbelief, dismay, dire predictions for scientific freedom and fears that the prosecution and conviction would set a dangerous precedent.

It’s tempting to imagine that the Italian decision is so far beyond the pale that it could not be repeated in a country such as our own.

Yet we can hardly hold up Australia as a global paragon of scientific virtues. Far from it.

As any scientist working in the federal public sector can tell you, the last five years have witnessed a dramatic increase in domestic attacks on Australian scientists and the research that they perform.

Consider the public discussion on climate change. Fuelled by misinformation, climate ‘sceptics’ have targeted climate scientists individually and directly. Abuse, invective, threats of violence, the trashing of professional reputations – at times it’s seemed like anything goes. For many scientists the tone of the climate change debate remains deeply disturbing.

In our largely arid continent, the management of water resources is never far from controversy. In 2010 we witnessed the public burning of copies of the Murray Darling Basin Authority report by irrigators – a provocative act that challenged the scientific basis of the recommendations and invoked memories of darker times.

And last year, three Greenpeace activists attacked a CSIRO experiment into genetically modified food by destroying a experimental wheat crop in Canberra.

Increasingly scientists have found themselves targeted and their motives questioned.

This erosion of scientific integrity is dangerous as it undermines the public’s confidence in the work that scientists perform, especially in the public sector where science reaches into every corner of Australian life.

The federal public sector boasts an impressive roll call of science in the service of the national interest.

We trust and rely on the Bureau of Meteorology to mitigate the risks of fire, flood and storm.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and Quarantine Inspection Service protect Australia’s biosecurity from paddock to plate and airport gate.

Geoscience Australia keeps the engine room of the economy humming through their services to mining and energy exploration.

Our 34,000 kilometres of coastline with their abundance of natural resources benefit from the expertise of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) OPAL reactor produces radioisotopes for cancer detection and treatment. The Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s (DSTO) contribution includes the Jindalee Operational Radar network, which monitors Australia’s strategic northern approaches in a 3,000 kilometre arc from Geraldton to Cairns.

In many respects, CSIRO does it all. Agriculture, astronomy, biodiversity and sustainability, human and animal health, land and water research, livestock industries, industrial materials and engineering processes, mathematics and informatics, energy and primary resources, climate science, information and communication technology – the list goes on.

The federal public sector is trusted to discover, apply and communicate science in a frank and fearless manner, without political or commercial interference.

That’s why the Community and Public Sector Union – with the CSIRO Staff Association taking the lead – recently launched a campaign championing the cause of scientific integrity across the public sector.

Our proposed Science Integrity Charter is built on a set of five key principles: the open communication and dissemination of scientific work; encouraging the internal and external debate of science issues; the contestability of uncertain science; the independence of public sector institutions and their staff and effective collaboration.

Hundreds of science workers across the federal public sector have already signed a petition calling on Science and Research Minister Chris Evans to support the development and implementation of the charter.

The CPSU has also made direct representations on the issue of science integrity to the Minister, Parliamentarians and Agency heads.

As scientists, we are not so naïve as to believe that science will trump politics when it comes to decision making. Policymakers must weigh a range of considerations, of which the scientific research is just a part.

Our role is to identify and research the issues with impartiality. In turn, it is the job of the rest of the community and their elected representatives to determine the policy response.

Protecting the integrity of the evidence is critical to maintaining confidence in the process itself. On science advice Albert Einstein once said: “The explanation must be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

And for simple explanations to be effective, they must be honest and credible.

The challenges that our growing global population faces are immense. We confront a future with diminishing natural resources, rising temperatures, less predictable climate and the decline of arable land. Biodiversity is already in steep decline and our energy needs outstrip supply.

To meet these challenges we will rely on the integrity of science and the responsible use of research by society like never before.

More information

Visit the Science Integrity Charter campaign page.

2 thoughts on “Time to stand up for scientific integrity

  1. I came across the following (few months old) article from our Noble prize winner Brian Schmidt.
    This seems a great voice/response from Aus Astronomy on this topic of science integrity.

    Yet Professor Schmidt fears what he sees as “bad behaviour” by both politicians and scientists in recent years in muddling the divide in Australia between science and policy on hot-button issues. Science should inform policy, but must not become politicised, he says. “On issues like climate change, coal-seam gas, water management in the Murray-Darling Basin and stem cells we have seen science and public policy get mixed together,” he said. “We have seen policymakers challenging science, which they are ill-equipped to do. It is important for scientists not to get involved in the policy debate because if we do that then we are tainting the scientific argument.”
    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/winner-brian-schmidts-noble-goal-to-teach-young-stars/story-e6frg6nf-1226249866593

    Cheers
    Jeroen

  2. David writes: Despite the rationale provided by the MDBA for the setting of the 2750 GL/y, there has been significant criticism for many different groups about the figure and how it was developed.

    The most common criticism received by the committee was that the MDBA had not provided sufficient details in support of its decision. Many key stakeholders, including peak bodies, told the committee that the reasoning for the decision to set the 2750 GL/y figure was not based on information that the MDBA has made available for their consideration

    This criticism was highlighted by the CSIRO discussion of the science behind the a 2800 GL/y scenario, in a review commissioned by the MDBA:

    The panel [of CSIRO scientists that conducted the review of the MDBA’s modelling] understands that other reduction scenarios have been modelled, but the panel has not seen modelling results for these other scenarios, and thus it is not clear how the 2800 GL/y reduction proposal was arrived at. The panel assumes this proposal was arrived at as a result of socio-economic considerations by MDBA…

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