Former CSIRO scientists say they have been pressured over talking about climate change
By Stephen Pincock | February 14, 2006
Australia's government-funded Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO) said today (February 14) that it would hold an investigation into claims scientists had been discouraged from publicly discussing the effects of climate change.
The claims, which follow close on the heels of similar accusations in the US, arose Monday night on the state-run broadcaster ABC TV. During a current affairs program, three former CSIRO scientists said they had been censored in one way or another by the national government.
One climate scientist, Barrie Pittock, said he was asked not to write in a government publication about the potential for people to be displaced by climate change. Pittock is currently an honorary fellow at CSIRO, meaning he does research there but is not on salary, a spokeswoman for CSIRO told The Scientist.
Another scientist, Graeme Pearman, who was laid off from the CSIRO in 2004, said he was told not to make any comments indicating he disagreed with government policy on emissions. "At least a half a dozen times over the last year that I was with CSIRO," he said in the program.
The third scientist, Barney Foran, who retired recently, said that last August he had received a telephone call at his desk from CSIRO's "corporate center" explaining that the Prime Minister's department had just requested that he "didn't say anything about ethanol."
The environment minister Ian Campbell rejected the claims, but called for CSIRO to hold an investigation. "We let our scientists talk freely to the media," CSIRO spokeswoman Marilyn Chalkley told The Scientist. "But we take this matter very seriously and will be holding an investigation." The details of the probe are not yet public, Chalkley said, but it would likely be limited to the accusations made by Foran.
Ron Sandland, deputy chief executive of CSIRO, said the program's claims were misleading. "Should scientists want to comment on Government or Opposition policy, they can do so as private individuals, but they have to be very clear they are expressing personal views," he said in a statement.
Jorg Imberger, director of the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia, said researchers in universities, CSIRO, and elsewhere were feeling the impact of growing politicization. "People are very much dependent on outside funding and it's dependent on a political agenda," he told The Scientist. "If you state a position incompatible with the organization that provides your money, you are at risk of losing that money."
However, Peter Cook, head of the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies -- funded by government, CSIRO, universities and several oil, coal, and mining companies -- said he had never been put under pressure not to speak about issues relating to climate change. "At no stage have I been approached and asked to sing a different tune," he told The Scientist.
Still, Cook said it was not uncommon to hear scientists talking about supposed cases of censorship. "You don't know if it's urban myth, rumor or true," he said. "I think when you have a single funding source, things could be different. I'm not saying they [other researchers] have not experienced problems, but I haven't."
The scientists who made the accusations on television could not be reached for further comment by deadline.
Links within this article
A. McCook, "James Hansen speaks-and maybe says too much," The Scientist, February 13, 2006.
"CSIRO scientists say Govt stifles debate," ABC News, February 13, 2006.
Barrie Pittock, "Climate Change"
CSIRO statement: CSIRO's scientists not gagged
Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies