Separation of Science and State

There’s been a concerted effort over the last few months to point out that science isn’t perfect.

The National Party’s Federal Council has just endorsed a motion to establish a watchdog, a national scientific quality assurance agency – a push led by federal MP George Christensen.

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan previously backed the call by the Queensland Liberal Party for an “Office of Science Quality Assurance” to review scientific reports before they are handed to government. It’s important to note there was no call for a review of all reports handed to government, only scientific ones.

And Professor Peter Ridd, a geophysicist who’s repeatedly questioned the overwhelming evidence that human-caused climate change is damaging the Great Barrier Reef’s delicate ecosystem, is embarking on a regional roadshow that has been compared to the tobacco industry’s attempts to discredit proof that smoking is harmful to health.

We agree that science isn’t perfect, but it is a set of transparent methods for getting at the truth, and that’s the point. Imperfection and a desire for constant growth and improvement is the very thing that drives scientific endeavour.

Science is, at its heart, a quest to know; to learn more about how the universe works. We challenge you to find a practice of discovery that has created a more reliable understanding of the physical world.

Admitting you don’t know is the first step to learning more – and this kind of honesty, which is embedded in scientific endeavour, underpins deep integrity, and rigorous systems designed to test, re-test and test again to ensure the advancement of scientific knowledge is based on fact, rather than assumption or wishful thinking.

The real meat of it is that science must be informed by evidence and peer review, two elements that are not negotiable.

That’s why we’re so perplexed by recent attempts to discredit the integrity of scientists.

All this, when the work of scientists is arguably subjected to greater rigor and scrutiny than any other professional group. Grant funding cannot be obtained without passing both a test of independent experts and political ‘national interest’ tests. Results cannot be published and promotion cannot be achieved without convincing an independent group of experts from around the world that the discovery you’ve made or the theory you’ve proven is as close to correct as it’s possible to be. And on the rare occasion that flawed findings make it through all those hoops and checks, there is no cover-up. Retractions are published, results are withdrawn – the word is spread.

To berate science for identifying and rectifying its mistakes is to silence scientists. And that is deeply dangerous, because if we silence the people presenting rigorously-obtained new knowledge, then fear, myth, conjecture and assumption rush in to fill the gap.

Scientists and scientific institutions MUST be enabled to provide frank and fearless advice to government and to the public. Because when scientists are afraid of speaking up, people, economies and environments are put at risk.

Does Australia really want a culture in which our strongest testers of the truth and our best chance of creating solutions to existential challenges are afraid to speak up? Where scientists working for national scientific institutions are publicly harassed after presenting their findings?

The people, and their political and business leadership, absolutely deserve to know. To know about the challenges they are facing, and to know about how to tackle them. We absolutely need a culture in which scientists are encouraged to share what they know with others, to provide frank and fearless advice to the government and to the people.

Professor Emma Johnston AO President, Science & Technology Australia

Dean of Science, University of NSW

Kylie Walker CEO, Science & Technology Australia

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