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Science the loser in Victoria’s alpine grazing trial

In January, 400 cattle were released into Victoria’s Alpine National Park as part of a research trial to investigate the influence of strategic grazing as a tool to reduce fuel loads and bush fire risk in the high country. The cattle had been removed from the National Park in 2005 after a Government-appointed taskforce found that they caused ‘significant damaging impacts and no overall environmental benefits’ to the Park and ‘did not make an effective contribution to fuel reduction or wildfire behaviour’.

This finding was made after considering the results of many independent scientific studies on the impact and influence of cattle within the park. So why are the cattle back? They’re back because it wins votes. The return of cattle to the Alpine National Park has been a long-standing policy of the Victorian Coalition, and follows persistent lobbying by a small, but influential, group of graziers in a marginal seat.

Unwilling to admit this, the government is saying there is too much uncertainty in the science, and claiming that more research needs to be done. But science has never claimed to provide certainty, and no matter how many trials the government does uncertainty will still exist. Essentially, the government is using scientific research as a cloak of respectability for a political decision; a cloak that is slipping.

Science should be open, transparent and free as possible from potential biases and vested interests. But science is a powerful tool and both scientists and politicians have been known to use it as a vehicle for pursuing political agendas.

In both the current grazing trial and scientific whaling, proponents have cited lack of evidence to maintain the case for their own research. In other famous examples, such as debates around human-induced climate change and the health implications of tobacco, interested parties have used uncertainty in scientific evidence to stall making important decisions about management actions.

Science is always going to be vulnerable to political exploitation because scientific findings are always associated with uncertainty; science cannot provide absolute proof. Scientific findings are probabilistic. When investigating the natural world, it is impossible to know everything about a system. So, while we can be very certain about something, but we can never be 100% certain.

And in addition to, or perhaps because of, this there may be a lack of consensus between scientists on the same issue. This is not necessarily a negative; scepticism is a critical component of science. But science is self-correcting; as scientific evidence continues to build and support the evidence that precedes it, our scepticism should tend towards acceptance.

In the tobacco example, partisan scientists and industry representatives used tactics designed to discredit the science and spread confusion amongst the public, obscuring the links between smoking and cancer. Eventually, however, the evidence was incontestable and the controversy generated was no longer defensible.

But scepticism should not be confused with denial, which is not beneficial to science or society. The evidence for human-induced climate change, for example, is now overwhelming. The time and money spent trying to further resolve uncertainty in the findings is better spent on research that helps us determine the most effective ways to mitigate and adjust to the effects.

Uncertainty is particularly pervasive in the environmental sciences because environmental systems are complex, with high natural variation over space and time. There is no doubt that this presents challenges to those who are required to make decisions about controversial issues. So what does this mean for evidence-based policy?

We believe that scientists and politicians both have important roles to play in ensuring that science is used appropriately when informing policy. Politicians and policy makers have the unenviable job of making decisions in the face of uncertainty. Decisions often also involve value-judgements. Decision makers have a responsibility to be transparent when justifying their actions.

Along with other experts, it is the scientists’ job to provide evidence to inform decisions. Scientists should also attempt to better communicate findings, including the associated uncertainties, so that the community is aware of the various costs and benefits associated with these decisions.

A good example of decision makers and scientists working together is the use of conservation planning tools to help assess the various social, economic and environmental trade-offs in the re-zoning of the Great Barrier Reef. The science didn’t remove the trade-offs – it didn’t make the decisions. It simply made the trade-offs clearer so that the policy makers could determine the best way to achieve increased conservation of the Reef while limiting the social and economic impacts on fisheries and other recreational and commercial interests. In the case of the alpine grazing trial, the Coalition has an uncomfortable trade-off to make between environmental and social values; they are using scientific uncertainty to mask this.

They have clearly decided that they want the cattle returned to the high country and that the environmental costs of cattle grazing within the National Park are worth paying. But they are not accepting the existing science, which tells us that cattle will not reduce bushfire risk without substantial damage to the native vegetation.

In this case, it is the role of scientists to question the relevance of the research questions and scientific integrity of this trial. One hundred and twenty-five concerned scientists, the Australian Academy of Science and the Carruthers Group of Alpine Ecologists have all written to the Victorian Government to express concern about the validity of the science and the manner in which the trial has been implemented.

The Federal Government has now stepped in. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said the cattle must be removed by April 8, and that the trial must be referred to the Federal Government for assessment under national conservation legislation. He stated that the Victorian Government had failed to provide a copy of the research proposal or explain how it would protect the park. “For something that is meant to be a university research project,” Burke has said, “they have provided information that wouldn’t pass as a high school science project.” So, at least for now, the lack of science in this trial has been recognised.

Science will always be associated with political topics and should be used to inform controversial decisions. But let us hope that the blatant misuse of science for political gain will be a thing of the past.

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