Australian scientists say they are prevented from speaking openly about their work and their advice is being suppressed by government and industry when it comes to the impact of logging, mining, land-clearing and the climate crisis, new research suggests.
A study by the Ecological Society of Australia, published in the journal Conservation Letters, surveyed 220 scientists across government, industry and academia on the extent to which their work had been suppressed.
Forms of suppression include not being able to present or publish results, changes being made to findings before the work is released and self-censorship due to fear of retribution.
The society found about a third of government and industry-employed ecologists and conservation scientists who responded said they had experienced undue modification of their work. About half the government scientists and nearly 40% of those working for industry said they had been blocked from releasing or discussing what they had found either publicly or internally where they worked.
Slightly more than half of all respondents (56%) said they felt the constraints on public commentary had become more severe in recent years.
This was most often the case in commentary about the plight of threatened species, with 56% of industry, 46% of government and 28% of university scientists working in the area reporting they felt limited in what they could say.
University and industry researchers were more likely to avoid public commentary due to fear of misrepresentation in the media, while government employees were most often constrained by their manager or workplace policy.
Don Driscoll, the lead author and a past president of the society, said the study showed that some of Australia’s best scientists were being prevented from sharing their work not only with the media and on social media platforms, but with colleagues and policymakers through peer-reviewed journals and at conferences.
He said the potential consequences were profound as it meant policies on issues such as climate change, bushfires and regulation of development proposals may not be informed by the best science.
“In reality, these findings may be the tip of the iceberg,” he told Guardian Australia. “It reflects on a type of corruption that’s going on in the system.”
Driscoll, who is also the director of the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University, said many industry-employed scientists were consultants hired to assess the environmental impact of proposed developments.
Those scientists were often left with no recourse if the work they did was modified before being presented to a government in a development application as their contracts prevented them speaking publicly.
Similarly, he said, scientists that worked within government departments and agencies faced an increasingly politicised system in which information was often filtered by public servants and ministerial staff before reaching politicians.
As the survey was opt-in it reflects only the experience of the sample who chose to take part, but the eight scientists behind the study said the respondents were an accurate reflection of the scientific workforce across age, gender and type of work.
Driscoll said the findings suggested a politicised culture in how science was dealt with and showed the power of vested interests, and highlighted the need for an independent watchdog such as a national Environment Protection Authority to assess development proposals and determine whether they should go ahead.
“It’s vital our environmental assessments are changed so that the people doing the damage are not employing the scientists doing the assessment of the damage to the environment,” he said.
Euan Ritchie, a Deakin University associate professor in wildlife ecology and co-author on the paper, described the study as “pretty clear evidence the democratic process, which is based on having an informed public, is being interfered with”.
He said it also showed that suppression of scientists’ work was having a heavy toll on their mental health. The paper includes anonymous quotes from respondents who said they had been threatened with losing their job if they spoke up after their advice was ignored, were intimidated by senior public servants on the phone and social media, and had quit their position due to stress and loss of motivation.
Ritchie said the stress of having work suppressed ran alongside a “baseline eco-anxiety and eco-grief” that many scientists experienced. “It’s a serious and insidious mental health issue that hasn’t been addressed properly,” he said.
The research was undertaken before an ongoing review of national environment laws by Graeme Samuel, the former head of the competition and consumer commission. In an interim report in July, Samuel found the laws were ineffective, the environment in decline, and advised the government to introduce an independent watchdog to ensure its protection.
Samuel also recommended the introduction of national environment standards to ensure conservation protection improved while the Morrison government handed greater development approval powers to the states and territories.
The government last week gagged debate while forcing legislation to start that process through the lower house of parliament. The proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act did not include environmental standards as promised. The environment minister, Sussan Ley, said they would be introduced later.
Driscoll said the government decision to rule out an independent watchdog and introduce laws without including environmental standards was “a major mistake” and showed what could happen when MPs did not listen to scientific advice.