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Monday, November 2, 2009

Science vs. Policy

The fish wraps are abuzz in Australia over allegations of government suppression of a journal article by CSIRO economist Clive Spash that is critical of carbon trading schemes. Spash contends that his paper was pulled by CSIRO management due to its critique of schemes such as Australia's Emissions Trading System, which is a cornerstone of federal greenhouse gas mitigation policy.

As in the past, both the CSIRO and the government have attempted to assure the public that no gagging has occurred, despite the fact that this is clearly what has happened. As Spash has correctly argued, one cannot engage in research on climate change without stepping on some political toes - if it's not politically relevant, there there probably isn't much point in doing the work. Furthermore, CSIRO's statement that it does not comment on policy at any level of government seems untenable. CSIRO exists to support science and technology research for the benefit of Australia, and it's research capabilities are frequently called upon to inform decision-making. My own work on adaptation within the CSIRO has frequently involved policy recommendations to government agencies as well as critiques of existing policies that act as barriers to adaptation. Stakeholders seek out CSIRO to provide such insights and are currently demanding more commentary in this arena, not less. The question is one of whether researchers are capable of acting as 'honest brokers' (in Roger Pielke Jr. speak) of science and policy rather than advocates for particular policies.

In any case, a nation that is unprepared to look critically at its own policies to manage climate risk is one that is poorly positioned to act effectively in the public interest. And a research organisation that enables such myopia is one in name only.

1 comment:

Roger Jones said...

That means policy recommendations can be solicited but not offered.

When doing research on policy there is a risk that a conclusion about a type of policy can turn into sensitivity about a particular policy. I have seen this happen a number of times. It is difficult though, to be generic without offering specific examples.

The CSIRO comments policy does not have a transparent and independent appeal mechanism. It’s done case by case. I think it should have a formal mechanism, where the reasons for refusal of research output is placed in the public domain.

That would help managers see that there are more important issues than minimising the risk of political sensitivity within CSIRO.