Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thought 10, Dance 3

Apparently, the United States isn't the only country where government scientists have trouble speaking their minds on the issues they know the most about. Scientists working at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) disagreed with their government's proposed greenhouse gas curbs, arguing that they were too small:

National Party senator Ron Boswell repeatedly clashed with some of Australia's leading climate scientists yesterday, accusing them of living in "a Pollyanna world" and putting jobs in jeopardy by calling for deep cuts to the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Jobs are on the line," Senator Boswell said. "You've got to be practical".

But Professor David Karoly, who worked with the UN's peak scientific body on climate change, replied that dangerous climate change in Australia would have serious long-term effects, including the loss of life from increased heatwaves and bushfires.

Mike Raupach, of the CSIRO, told Senator Boswell consequences of not cutting greenhouse emissions globally would mean a severe decline in rainfall and water in the Murray-Darling Basin, the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef and coastal communities succumbing to rising sea levels. Senator Boswell expressed surprise when Dr Raupach told him that sea-level rise was already occurring.

The scientists were arguing for deep cuts to emissions during the opening day of the Senate inquiry into the Government's climate change policy. They were often at odds with the Rudd Government's policy as well as Senator Boswell during hearings, with the former senior CSIRO scientist Graeme Pearman arguing Australia should cut emissions by 30 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.

Climate scientists living in Pollyanna world: senator

I'd say someone who thinks that a few jobs that might be eliminated or change hands are more important than the numerous populated islands that will soon be underwater is an example of being in "a Pollyanna world". I used that long quote to illustrate some of the other dangers the scientists were talking about in their testimony. Still, the scientists weren't allowed to represent themselves as anything other than concerned citizens. Dr. Raupach was even more blunt in his assessment as quoted by The Age:

Dr Raupach said yesterday he and his colleagues have entered the public climate change debate because science has been relegated to an "input".

"There is still a tendency when framing policy to negotiate with climate change -- that is to treat climate change as one of the factors that have to be taken into account -- and that you can trade off meeting climate change goals with meeting economic goals and meeting other sorts of goals," Dr Raupach said. "The perception of climate scientists, including me, is that over the next few decades that kind of negotiation is not possible. That it is like trying to negotiate with a speeding train."

Australia: Current targets won't protect planet

Ironically, the Rudd government had issued this statement a little more than a year earlier:

And again: ``In a world of rapidly evolving public debate and discourse, a national research agency such as CSIRO should discharge its public role by being readily and rapidly available to provide information on the most up-to-date science and technology and its implications for the nation.''

I support and commend this policy position, and believe we can do better.

It is not good enough to allow scientists and other researchers to comment on matters of public interest but then to quarantine them from contentious issues. As is often the case, it is in matters of contention and sharp debate that their knowledge and expertise is most valuable. Their right to speak out and to represent their research or discoveries must be protected.

The Rudd Government has done away with the contractual constraints on the right of NGOs to criticise government policy without fear that they will lose public funding. In a parallel context, the same must hold true for our public sector researchers.

Liberating The Voices Of Science

I can't find any record of the scientists being dismissed afterward, so at least the government didn't go back completely on its word. The previous government (under John Howard) had not been so thoughtful:

A former CSIRO senior scientist and internationally recognised expert on climate change claims he was reprimanded and encouraged to resign after he spoke out on global warming.

Graeme Pearman said he believed there was increasing pressure in Australia on researchers whose work or professional opinions were not in line with the Federal Government's ideology.

His view accords with that of a growing number of scientists concerned about the pursuit of "intensely political" areas of science, such as the debate over climate change, amid fears that views contrary to government policy were unwelcome.

Dr Pearman says he fell out with his CSIRO superiors after joining the Australian Climate Group, an expert lobby group convened by the Insurance Australia Group and environment body WWF in late 2003.

Australian Climate Scientists Bitter Over Interference

Things would appear to have gotten better. Nevertheless, the point remains that these were the scientists employed by their government to research these issues, but they were only allowed to speak as private citizens.

This video was made by the Sydney University Science Review to satirize this situation. It is not an official product of CSIRO, as you can probably tell by the lack of syncopation among the dancers:

Somehow, not quite being in step seems appropriate here.

If government science agencies have an official position on a scientific question, they should be based on the opinions of their most accomplished scientists in that field, not on the convenience of the current administrators. All too often, a government official's view of what's "practical" has more to do with his own interests, or his own convenience than it does with what is actually true. Making scientists conform to the "reality" of politicians is always hazardous, and in the long run, seldom beneficial to the societies they're supposed to be serving.

Afterword: According to the video's YouTube page, this video is based on a Backstreet Boys video. My guess is that this one probably exceeds the original in entertainment value.

(h/t: PZ Myers)

UPDATE: Digital Cuttlefish has a few things to say about the value of science, in rhyme no less.


Suzanne said...

i love this video cujo. it appeals to both the science geek and the pop culture princess inside me. and thanks for the backstory behind it -- it appeals to the dfh inside me.

Cujo359 said...

Prof. Myers made it easy. I was just curious what the heck the video was about, and found out all this. It's somewhat reassuring that we're not the only people who engage in folly.