Science and alpine grazing: politics and responsibility

Publicly funded scientists have a responsibility to the public. AAP

Australian science institutions and scientists must retain the confidence of the public and Australian governments. By blurring facts, disrespecting other institutions’ research processes and turning their backs on elected governments, researchers do nothing to enhance Australia’s scientific reputation.

University of Melbourne academics Garrard and Rumpff recently set out their view as to the “the blatant misuse of science for political gain” in the Victorian alpine grazing trial.

That article and the copious commentary provided by these and other scientists opposed to the government’s trial, provides useful context here.

Scientists must be objective

A key responsibility for scientists and scientific institutions, and key mitigating strategy for a pitfall highlighted by Garrard and Rumpff – “science is a powerful tool and both scientists and politicians have been known to use it as a vehicle for pursuing political agendas” – is to make sure science is stated as objectively as possible.

If we are not willing to state facts clearly then the public can have little confidence in us.

Few if any of the scientists opposed to the Victorian Government’s current trial have been willing to state clearly that the great majority of the area involved is foothill forest, montane forest and subalpine woodland.

The current trial is not focused on alpine grasslands. Less than 100 hectares of the approximately 26,000 hectares of the trial area is classified as grassland, while around 24,500 hectares is classified as forest or woodland. Only approximately 1700 hectares of the trial area is above 1400m elevation, and only about 140 hectares is above 1600m.

The Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment stated that “that the available evidence does not allow for an opinion to be formed on the effectiveness of fuel and bushfire management using strategic cattle grazing”. He based this determination – as I point out in my Opinion Paper for the government – on the depth of knowledge of the effectiveness of grazing in the forests and woodlands.

Scientists opposed to the government’s trial have focused their commentary on the greater depth of knowledge of the small areas of high elevation grassland, ignoring the vast majority of the trial area and relative paucity of knowledge for the vegetation classes that comprise that.

Is this is a case of scientists using science to pursue a political agenda or something else? Is it excused by the circumstances?

Scientists must respect Australia’s research processes

A second responsibility of scientists is to respect the research processes used by Australia’s scientific institutions. Comments to the effect that publicly funded scientists working within the government’s trial could only “prove that cows eat grass”, or conduct research akin to “scientific whaling”, are completely at odds with research and how it is conducted by any Australian scientific institution or scientist that I know of.

They are hard to understand if they were made by people employed within Australia’s public scientific institutions and familiar with their research processes and management. There is not a shred of evidence to support such contentions. Those making such statements need to back their claims with evidence, not conjecture and hypotheticals.

A key part of the research process is that detailed research proposals are usually confidential to the proposers, peer-reviewers, and the funding agency – for a whole host of reasons, including the need to protect intellectual property. Garrard and Rumpff emphasised the importance of scrutiny by scientists of proposals put by government, and provided an example of a letter from Fellows of the AAS offering advice to the relevant Minister.

Scientists, however, cannot dictate how our democratically elected governments implement policy.

Did those making comments about scientific whaling and cows eating grass, do so on the basis of detailed research proposals, of the type that form the basis of research contracts, or did they do so on the basis of general understanding from websites and media commentary? Were these too comments in pursuit of a political agenda?

Commentary based on press releases and second-hand media stories, as to the nature of research to be conducted by other scientists and pre-empting research outcomes by other scientists, can only fuel public mistrust of scientists generally and their institutions.

It suggests a lack of respect for researchers and research processes and their management within Australian scientific institutions. As far as I am aware, our institutions are free of “scientific whaling” research and are instead typified by original research.

It is scientists’ job to assist the government

A third responsibility for Australia’s taxpayer funded scientists is to provide research advice and services to governments within their area of expertise. Whether or not we agree with government policy or with how governments choose to go about implementing their policy, scientists must be willing to assist in the most objective and professional manner they can. To not do so would be hypocrisy.

In recent years, large amounts of taxpayer funding have been accepted by scientists to conduct research focused on conservation issues, especially design of reserves, of the type promoted by Garrard and Rumpff. How much research in this area do we need? At least some of that funding can be argued as being politically motivated given Australia’s political landscape.

Nonetheless, I strongly suggest that Australian scientists and scientific institutions argue the majority of the funding has been used well by the scientists and institutions concerned, in large part due to the checks and balances that are part of Australia’s science.

My point is that scientists lobby politicians and governments all the time to promote their area of interest. It is what they do with taxpayer funds that matters and here we all rely on and must protect the processes of research management that serve to preserve and enhance Australia’s scientific reputation.

The Carruthers Group expressed their views as private citizens, not via their institutional affiliations. The Carruthers group have asserted that past research by other publicly funded scientists failed to meet objectives and that proposed research within the Victorian Government trial would be a repeat of past work. Both assertions are utterly false. This type of comment does little to reassure the public or governments of the responsible behaviour of scientists and institutions.

It is not my role to defend the Victorian Government other than to again point out their election to implement policy. I have faith that the majority of Australia’s publicly funded scientists understand the points I have made here. Politics will always be with us and Australian science can only emerge a winner if our scientists accept the responsibilities that come with the job.

How involved have I been in the trial?

My involvement in the trial has been much covered in the media. Over the past three months I have written the above-mentioned Opinion Paper at the request of the Victorian Government on the general subject of fuel management in the Victorian High Country. The Opinion Paper is based on a thorough re-reading of relevant literature.

I have talked with the government about research approaches and methodologies in this broad field. My further involvement depends on the nature of any research contracts my university might develop with the government.

I agree with closing comments made by Garrard and Rumpff, since I will always seek to identify valid and relevant research questions in relation to fuel and ecosystem management that can be answered using rigorous scientific methods.

I will always conduct research I do as a full-time employee of the University of Sydney under conditions (including ethical conditions) set by my university, as allowed to do under Australian law, and as stipulated in research contracts and agreements. I will not be conducting research on the basis of media announcements, or newspaper reports, or without appropriate checks and contracts being in place.