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Friday, December 4, 2009

Spash Resigns over Censorship Claims

After almost a month of mudslinging in the media (and nine months of negotiations behind closed doors), Clive Spash, Science Leader in CSIRO's Division of Sustainable Ecosystems, has resigned from the organisation over allegations CSIRO has attempted to censor his critique of carbon trading policies such as those currently being pursued by the Australian government.

CSIRO's charter bars its researchers or the organisation from commenting on government or opposition policy, and the organisation has suggested that Spash's paper, The Brave New World of Carbon Trading, crosses the line by advocating against the government's emissions trading scheme. In his defense, Spash has argued his paper is a "dispassionate critique, " and he notes that it is very difficult to undertake policy relevant work on the economics of greenhouse gas mitigation policy without making some comment directly or indirectly on actual policies.

It's probably fair to say that Spash has strong views on the subject of the economics of climate change policy, from the structure of the policies being proposed to address climate change to the underlying social values that underpin those policies. As such, I'm not sure how dispassionate Spash's critique really is. Yet the point here is that while CSIRO's charter may seem sensible on paper, it is rather easy to demonstrate it as being untenable in practice. For example, if the coalition currently in opposition in federal government were to decide that its official party position on climate change is that climate change doesn't exist, does that mean the CSIRO would not be allowed to publish any research to the contrary for fear of violating its charter against commenting on specific policy initiatives? Of course not.

In fact, CSIRO's services have been retained repeatedly by the current government to help defend the science of climate change and address queries by skeptical politicians in the lead up to the vote on the government's ETS. Steve Hatfield-Dodds published a number of studies on emissions trading while employed by CSIRO (e.g., Energy Affordability, Living Standards and Emissions Trading), which certainly seem to address government policy, but in so doing treat that policy as a fait accompli rather than something that should be viewed with a critical eye. Meanwhile, CSIRO researchers have participated in a number of projects that effectively advocate for greenhouse emissions reductions policies through an examination of the costs and benefits of different emissions targets and pathways and their subsequent implications for climate change impacts (e.g., Energy Futures Forum, the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change, and of course the Garnaut Review which was anything but apolitical). If one chose (and some do), one could argue that such acts represent CSIRO scientists being asked to lobby on behalf of the federal government. Furthermore, it's worth noting that the powers that be in CSIRO remain markedly silent when the federal government opts not to release (in whole or in part) federally-commissioned CSIRO research on climate change when the government finds the research a bit too controversial or inconvenient.

Thus the critical problem with CSIRO's charter is that it is open to some interpretation and, therefore, inconsistently applied. This is due perhaps to the charter being inconsistent in itself. On one hand, the charter states,

"The Government and CSIRO recognise that there may be divergent views on both issues of pulic interest and the expert advice that is provided in relation to them. The parties each agree that vigorous open debate of these views is important; as is the right of researchers to change their opinion in the light of such debate or new findings from research".
Yet, later, the charter also states,
". . . a responsibility of CSIRO and its researchers is to inform the policy making process. They can do this by conducting the highest quality research and providing the best available knowledge and analysis to government and the public, and by engaging in the public discussion and consideration of their research and findings. They should not be asked by Government to defend or debate the merits of Government policy. As CSIRO employees, they should not advocate, defend or publicly debate the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or local or foreign governments).
Based on my reading, these passages make a distinction between public interest and public policy. Personally, it's hard to see how CSIRO can support the former while ignoring the latter, given that many of the challenges CSIRO is charged with finding solutions to have arisen, at least in part, from institutional decision-making. A charter that encourages researchers to provide critical analysis to government and engage in public debate while simultaneously barring scientists from undertaking such acts when they pertain to government policy is simply schizophrenic. I challenge anyone to develop a consistent way of resolving the internal conflicts of the charter in a manner that doesn't tie the hands of researchers or leave decision-makers in the dark. This clearly hasn't happened so far, which is why CSIRO has just lost another bright mind.

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