In response to concerns over gagging, government agency changes policy
By Stephen Pincock | July 14, 2006
Australia's top government science organization has completely rewritten its policy on public comments by staff this week, after admitting that the existing policy had discouraged staff from speaking about their research in public.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) launched a review of its old policy in February after several climate researchers went public with claims that they had been gagged.
CSIRO chief executive Geoff Garrett asked a panel of scientists led by chemist Tony Haymet, currently the organization's director of science and policy, to consult with staff over the policy. After holding 10 separate consultation sessions, they came to the conclusion that CSIRO needed to reaffirm its trust in its scientists.
"The common denominator was that [staff] felt the old policy was contradictory," Haymet told The Scientist. While its preamble was very positive about communicating science to the wider community, it also included a series of negative rules about what was not permitted, he said.
"It started to cause people to ask questions," Haymet said. "I just thought this little germ [of concern] couldn't be allowed to continue."
The review panel suggested that the existing policy, which had been in place since 2004, be redrafted. The CSIRO board agreed, and "as a result of the review we have totally rewritten our policy," Garrett said in a statement.
Crucially, the new rules don't require staff to seek permission from management before speaking publicly. "We have taken out the word 'permission'," Garrett said. "Scientists are CSIRO's frontline communicators, and we trust them to discuss their science, even in potentially controversial areas."
The policy change is good news, but staff will want to see the policy's words translate into a deeper cultural change, said Michael Borgas, an atmospheric research scientist at CSIRO and president of the organization's staff association.
"It's all well and good to put out these fine words?but the real game is going to be played out at a different level," he told The Scientist. Unless CSIRO management puts greater emphasis on funding research into topics like climate change, its scientists won't have any research findings to tell the public about, he said.
"It's a longer-term, more insidious form of gagging," Borgas said. "It's not clear that CSIRO will put the necessary resources into pursuing the scientific subjects that we as staff feel are vital for our society."
Outside the organization, the change was broadly welcomed. Gustav Nossal, emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne, and former president of the Australian Academy of Science, for example, said in a statement: "The new CSIRO media policy is absolutely excellent, realistic, transparent, sensible and giving scientists a great chance."
But others were concerned that the policy tells CSIRO staff not to advocate, defend or canvass the merits of government or opposition policies.
Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, warned that ministers in the past have seen any comment on the need to reduce greenhouse emissions as a challenge to policy. "I would like to be reassured that scientists will be free to tell the public what the science says, even if that makes politicians ?uncomfortable," he said in a statement.
Links within this article
Scientists frontline communicators in changed policy
Policy on Public Comment by CSIRO Staff
S. Pincock, "Australian climate researchers gagged?" The Scientist, February 14, 2006.