Nature the big loser as scientists face suppression

The suppression of science by governments and corporations is hampering efforts to address the global biodiversity crisis, researchers warn.

Leading ecologists say the practice by powerful entities is threatening the earth’s irreplaceable natural treasures at a time when robust science is needed most.

James Cook University professor Bill Laurance said the situation was most dangerous in developing countries, where sharing expert knowledge that might damage vested interests could result in a bullet in the back.

But he said Australia was not immune to the problem and the suppression of academic work was far more subtle but still inherently dangerous here.

“It often happens in situations where the stakes are high, when it’s an important issue causing controversy,” he said.

“Imagine someone who’s done years of work on a subject and has more or less been told not to talk to the media.”

Prof Laurance pointed to a 2020 survey of Australian ecologists, who reported facing gags on the public release of their information.

The results of that suppression ranged from poor policy outcomes to impacts on threatened species and delayed action on climate change.

Of 220 people interviewed by the Ecological Society of Australia, about 50 per cent of government experts and 40 per cent of industry respondents said they had been banned from publicly sharing their work.

The JCU ecologist said he had experienced suppression in earlier phases of his career, when he worked for the government and government-related entities.

In one job, he said “there was just so much political stuff going on there, it was just a constant, crazy ‘yes minister’ kind of a situation”.

Prof Laurance said Australians needed to look no further than near-neighbour Indonesia to understand what happened when academic suppression escalated.

The nation is home to the largest expanses of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia, which supports a large number of critically endangered species.

Last year, five long-serving conservation scientists were effectively banned from conducting further research after Indonesia accused them of operating with “negative intentions” that could discredit the government.

Two years earlier, environmental scientist David Gaveau was deported after saying the extent of wildfires was substantially larger than that the government had reported.

“The current climate of scientific suppression in Indonesia is likely to have far-reaching impacts on the country’s environment and economy,” Prof Laurance and colleagues wrote in a newly published article.

“For example, conflicting reports on population trajectories of the threatened Bornean orangutan 
 which triggered the recent ban on foreign researchers, could cause misdirections of important funding or uncertainty in the value of conservation interventions.”

Prof Laurance said there were lessons for all nations in what happened recently in Indonesia and other countries like Brazil, where the government had fired officials with opposing views on deforestation.

But he said there were ways to fight back.

“International funding schemes could require data transparency for studies they support and scientists could establish whistleblower ‘safe houses’, or anonymised journals where they can safely contribute sensitive information,” Prof Laurance said.

“If we’re all going to have a world worth living in, for our children and ourselves, we need to know what’s happening with the environment now.”

The article appears in the latest edition of the journal Current Biology.

 

Tracey Ferrier
(Australian Associated Press)

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