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One thing we can learn from the Alpine grazing trial: scientists must speak up

It is possible to make a difference, so be courageous. Joe Dunckley/Flickr

Environmental scientists are partly motivated by a desire for better management of the Earth’s resources. They usually aim to effect change by going about their research quietly, and hoping that government and non-government agencies will ask them for advice – this rarely occurs for a variety of reasons.

In contrast, a small fraction of environmental scientists speak publicly about contentious issues on which they have expertise. The reasons for this paucity of direct engagement in public debate are many, but can include few professional rewards, uncertainty about its effectiveness, limited time, a fear of being attacked for their stance, and various other threats.

The recent reports of death threats directed towards Australian climate scientists highlight some worrying consequences of being involved in public environmental debates.

Is there a proper way to engage in debate?

In an article in The Conversation, Professor Mark Adams, the Dean of Agriculture at The University of Sydney, sought to make three main points about how scientists should engage in public debates.

He argued that scientists should be objective, respect Australia’s research processes and institutions, and assist elected governments. These points were discussed in relation to the role of scientists, led by Drs Georgia Garrard and Libby Rumpff, who opposed Victoria’s trial of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park.

Professor Adams’ first two points are self-evident, but we disagree with the third point, and with several other assertions made in the article, as outlined below. We conclude by suggesting that we need ways to encourage more scientists to engage in public environmental debates.

Professor Adams argued that scientists who oppose the grazing trial have not been objective and have distorted the facts. He also questioned the political motives of the scientists, particularly Drs Garrard and Rumpff.

Their motives have been expressed clearly in the public domain: the scientists are concerned about the ecological impact of grazing by non-native animals in national parks, and about the quality of the science conducted to date.

It is impossible to see how expressing these concerns publicly would benefit the scientists or any organisation with which they are associated; questioning their motives is unjustified. The considerable time taken to organise the comments and the potential risk to possible research funding from the Victorian government in the future would, if anything, discourage involvement in the public debate.

Science as a cover for contentious policy

The introduction of cattle to the selected study sites before collecting any relevant data has undeniably compromised the role of these sites in any proper future scientific study. Further, it is unclear how ad hoc information collected last summer about the location of grazing cattle will contribute to any future study. Consequently, concerns about the quality of any science conducted during last summer’s grazing seem valid.

Fundamental knowledge exists about the factors that influence fire risk in Australian vegetation communities. Models already exist to predict how changes in vegetation would reduce fire risk. Cattle grazing will only reduce fire risk if it can drive substantial changes to the vegetation.

Should managers attempt to drive such changes in an area set aside for nature conservation by introducing large non-native, hard-hoofed grazing animals that are known to have detrimental impacts in many Australian environments? Concerns about this seem well-justified by the available evidence, especially when risks of fire in the alpine environment appear much lower than elsewhere in Victoria.

Scientists opposing the grazing trial do respect Australia’s scientific processes and institutions. Comparisons with scientific whaling were not directed at any planned research by university academics, but instead at the scientific credibility of last summer’s grazing.

It is clear that the grazing trial was the Victorian Government’s mechanism to implement their policy of allowing cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park. Given current legislation, simply allowing grazing in the national park under licence, as previously conducted, is not lawful. However, national parks can be used for scientific research under existing legislation.

While the ethical issues of whaling and cattle grazing are clearly different, using science to implement the policy of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park does appear analogous to using science as a front to harvest whales. Using science in this way undermines its legitimate role of providing objective information. Scientists have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to highlight this publicly in an effort to defend the appropriate use of science by governments.

Scientists have a duty to speak up

The areas of research that are funded by governments reflect priorities that evolve from public policy. These priorities clearly have political dimensions, and it is reasonable for scientists to take advantage of any opportunities that arise within normal processes that govern Australian research.

In noting this point, Professor Adams questions how much research is required in the area of conservation biology, which is our own research field and that of Drs Garrard and Rumpff. By all objective measures, this is one of Australia’s highest performing research fields, and substantial levels of funding seem justified.

This research has contributed to public policy, and has advanced the field of conservation biology internationally. We would be happy to detail these achievements further.

Professor Adams states that it is a scientist’s job to assist the government. While the acts of parliament under which Australian universities are incorporated require contributions to public debate, this is not an imperative to help governments implement their policies.

We agree with Professor Adams that scientists cannot dictate how governments implement policy, but when academics have evidence that such policies are misguided, they have a duty to say so publicly.

The University of Melbourne has recently re-asserted the right of its academics to engage in public debate, and condemned attempts to stifle that role. We expect that all scientists, particularly those at senior ranks in Australian universities, would similarly defend the right of academics to engage in public debate without their political motives being questioned or being the subject of other personal attacks.

Defending science is thankless, but satisfying

Given the potential for being criticised publicly and various other discouragements, what would we say to junior academics who might contribute to contentious, public environmental debates? We agree with Professor Adams that they should aim to be objective and respectful, but would warn them that this might not be reciprocated.

Public debate, especially on issues that the media find fascinating, is much tougher than the intellectual debate in which academics normally engage. But importantly, we see three main reasons for being involved.

Firstly, it is a duty of publicly funded scientists to contribute relevant knowledge and expertise. We have fewer constraints than many other people in society.

Secondly, it is possible to make a difference, so be courageous. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing” might be an appropriate maxim to promote.

And thirdly, there is great personal satisfaction in using knowledge and logic to defend what one believes to be right.

We hope more scientists take a public stance in contentious environmental debates, for the benefit of our planet and its inhabitants, the relevance of science, and their own satisfaction.

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