How to Defend Science From Political Interference: New Study

Politically inconvenient findings can be revealed by scientific research and, as concerns grow in the U.S about a clampdown on the ability of scientists to speak freely, it is up to the international scientific community, media and the public to fight for scientific integrity, says a new study.

The paper, published Tuesday in the journal Conservation Biology, looks at the experience of scientists in Canada, Australia and the U.S and recommends reforms that are needed to defend the scientific integrity of policies to conserve endangered species and ecosystems.

While the U.S is struggling under changes made by the President Donald Trump administration and policy changes are needed in Australia, the situation in Canada is better under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals than under the Conservative Harper government. However, reforms are needed to protect scientific integrity in the future, says the study, which documents the extent to which the Harper government interfered with scientific findings and ignored science-based advice.

As an illustration, the paper says: “Under the Harper administration, the minister of the environment ceased transmitting COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) advice to the cabinet to delay protection of as many as 198 species, subspecies and distinct populations in Canada.”

Trudeau has pledged that federal researchers will be allowed to speak publicly about their areas of expertise without prior approval and, last year, promised to appoint a chief science advisor with a mandate of safeguarding scientific integrity and ensuring the public is made aware of federal scientific research.*

Scientific integrity means being able to use and talk about scientific findings without censorship or political interference, says the paper.

“Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true, but truth can be inconvenient,” said Carlos Carroll, Society for Conservation Biology North America president, who led the team of international scientists who wrote the paper.

There is a growing trend globally to attack scientific integrity with scientific evidence ignored or suppressed for political reasons or public access to websites or other government scientific data curtailed, Carroll said in a news release.

“Recent assaults on science and scientists under the Trump administration are particularly extreme, but (they) extend far more broadly,” said Carroll, an ecologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in Orleans, California.

Recommendations includes strengthening scientific integrity policies, guaranteeing public access to scientific information and including scientists’ right to speak freely in collective bargaining agreements — something that subsequent governments would have difficulty in reversing.

In the U.S, during the Obama administration, public access to scientific policies was expanded through new policies and statutes, but, because of Trump’s dismissal of scientific underpinnings, those protections are now tenuous and there are fears that public access to government climate data and information on other touchy political subjects will be cut off, according to the study, which recommends “stronger institutional safeguards."

Government scientists should ensure that they communicate with scientific societies and organizations and bring in a broad range of views, the paper says.

It is challenging when some administrations are publicly hostile to science, but scientists should not shrink from defending their work and a culture of scientific integrity is needed, Carroll said in the news release.

“A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations,” he said.

“Scientists have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to promote and affirm that science is indispensible for evidence-based policies and regulations.”

When policies unfold in plain sight, it helps sustain a functioning, democratic society, Carroll said.

*UPDATED July 26, 2017, at 9 a.m. to reflect the fact Trudeau has promised to appoint a chief science advisor, but DeSmog Canada has not yet been able to confirm that someone is actually in the position.

Photo: Brick 101 via Flickr

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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