No freedom of speech for scientists

Dissent is being suppressed where it conflicts with powerful interests, while scientists who are "on message" are encouraged to speak out.

Consider the following clause in an employment contract leaked to GeneWatch UK by a scientist disturbed by the restrictive nature of what he was being asked to sign: "As the [place of work] is supported from public funds and in view of the nature of its work, there are certain restrictions on employees wishing to engage in political activities. Staff should not become involved in political controversy in matters affecting research in biotechnology and biological sciences."

The clause was based on the BBSRC's - the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council's - code, applied to all publicly funded research scientists working in this area.

The UK public funding body's code works to inhibit the employees of such institutes from speaking out about any concerns they might have on, for example, GM foods by defining this as becoming "involved in political controversy on biotechnology and biological sciences", which is prohibited.

The code implies that if researchers do speak out, their careers might suffer or that they could even face dismissal, be sued for breach of contract, or face a court injunction to stop any further comments. It might seem far fetched that the code would be applied in this way, but as was seen in the gagging of Dr Pusztai, the code can prove effective in silencing even a senior scientist without the necessity of legal action. We have even heard of scientists being reminded of the clause at the point of retirement, with the suggestion that speaking out of turn could affect their pension rights as well as their continuing access to their institutions.

But if you are a scientist at a BBSRC-funded institute who wants to speak out in support of GM foods, then you are almost certainly not going to face any penalty for getting involved in the controversy. On the contrary, you are likely to be encouraged to do so.

1.For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable
2.Scientists should engage in policy, but it's a balancing act
1.For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable
George Monbiot
The Guardian, 30 September 2013

*Government policy in Britain, Canada, and Australia is crushing academic integrity on behalf of corporate power

It's as clear and chilling a statement of intent as you're likely to read. Scientists should be "the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena". Vladimir Putin? Kim Jong-un? No, Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the UK's Department for Environment.

Boyd's doctrine is a neat distillation of government policy in Britain, Canada, and Australia. These governments have suppressed or misrepresented inconvenient findings on climate change, pollution, pesticides, fisheries, and wildlife. They have shut down programmes that produce unwelcome findings and sought to muzzle scientists. This is a modern version of Soviet Lysenkoism: crushing academic dissent on behalf of bad science and corporate power.

Writing in an online journal, Boyd argued that if scientists speak freely, they create conflict between themselves and policymakers, leading to a "chronically deep-seated mistrust of scientists that can undermine the delicate foundation upon which science builds relevance". This, in turn, "could set back the cause of science in government". So they should avoid "suggesting that policies are either right or wrong". If they must speak out, they should do so through "embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena".

Shut up, speak through me, don't dissent – or your behaviour will ensure that science becomes irrelevant. Note that the conflicts between science and policy are caused by scientists, rather than by politicians ignoring or abusing the evidence. Or by chief scientific advisers.

In an online question and answer session hosted by his department, Professor Boyd maintained that 50% of tuberculosis infections among cattle herds are caused by badgers. He repeated the claim in an official document called Science to Inform TB Policy. But as the analyst Jamie McMillan points out, the figure has been sexed up from inadequate data. Like the 45-minute claim in the Iraq debate, it is "spurious, simple to take on board, and crucial in convincing parliament".

The badger cull as a whole defies the findings of the £49m study the previous government commissioned. It has been thoroughly dissected by the leading scientists in the field, which might explain why Boyd is so keen to shut them up. It's one of many ways in which his department has binned the evidence in setting its policies.

Yesterday Boyd's boss, environment secretary Owen Paterson, told the Tory party conference not to worry about global warming. "I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." A few weeks ago on Any Questions, he managed to repeat 10 discredited claims about climate change in one short contribution.

His department repeatedly misrepresents science to appease industrial lobbyists. It claimed that its field trials of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees showed that "effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances". Hopelessly contaminated, the study was in fact worthless, which is why it was not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.

Similar distortions surround the department's refusal to establish meaningful marine reserves, its attempt to cull buzzards on behalf of pheasant shoots, and its determination to allow farmers to start dredging streams again, turning them into featureless gutters.

There's one consolation: Boyd, in his efforts to establish a tinpot dictatorship, has not yet achieved the control enjoyed by his counterparts in Canada. There, scientists with government grants working on any issue that could affect industrial interests – tar sands, climate change, mining, sewage, salmon farms, water trading – are forbidden to speak freely to the public. They are shadowed by government minders and, when they must present their findings, given scripts to memorise and recite. Dozens of turbulent research programmes and institutes have either been cut to the bone or closed altogether.

In Australia, the new government has chosen not to appoint a science minister. Tony Abbott, who once described man-made climate change as "absolute crap", has already shut down the government's climate commission and climate change authority. But at least Australians are fighting back: the climate commission has been reconvened as an NGO, funded by donations. In Britain we allowed the government to shut down the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission with scarcely a groan of protest.

David Cameron's government claimed that the tiny savings it made were required to reduce the deficit. Yet somehow it manages to fund a lavish range of planet-wrecking programmes. The latest is the Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, just launched by the Natural Environment Research Council. Its aim is "to support the oil and gas sector" by providing "focused training" in fracking, in exploiting tar deposits, and in searching for oil in polar regions. In other words, it is subsidising fossil fuel companies while promoting climate change. How many people believe this is a good use of public money?

To be reasonable, when a government is manipulating and misrepresenting scientific findings, is to dissent. To be reasonable, when it is helping to destroy human life and the natural world, is to dissent. As Julien Benda argued in La Trahison des Clercs, democracy and civilisation depend on intellectuals resisting conformity and power.

A world in which scientists speak only through minders and in which dissent is considered the antithesis of reason is a world shorn of meaningful democratic choices. You can judge a government by its treatment of inconvenient facts and the people who expose them. This one does not emerge well.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot A fully referenced version of this article can be found at
2.Scientists should engage in policy, but it’s a balancing act
Kathy Sikes, Professor of Science and Society at University of Bristol
The Conversation, 29 September 2013

In a recent speech at the British Science Festival in Newcastle, England, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees said on policy issues “scientists have a special responsibility to engage”. Yet he added: “They should accept that on the economic, social and ethical aspects of any policy they speak as citizens and not as experts.”

But are scientists able to distinguish between areas where they are experts and where they speak as citizens? Or do they make it clear on which basis they are speaking? Some scientists’ cries of “kill the badgers”, “we must have GM crops” or “go for nuclear power” lead me to think that sometimes the two roles have blurred edges.

There is a helpful way of looking at how scientists give advice to policymakers. In Roger Pielke’s book, "The Honest Broker", he suggests that there are four ways scientists can choose to engage in the policy process. First, they can act as a “pure scientist” who publishes papers, and even if their work has relevance to a policy issue, they leave it for others to find and use the results. Second, they can act as “science arbiters”, who answer specific factual questions posed by decision-makers. Third, they can become an “issue advocate”, who decide for themselves on the “right” policy decision and become advocates for the “solution”, sometimes closing down the scope of choices available to policymakers. Finally, they can act as “honest brokers”, who aim to expand and clarify the scope of options and choices available to decision-makers, stepping back, leaving it to the policymaker to use this evidence to decide what to do.

On the matter of these four ways, scientists might reflect on where they sit on particular issues when speaking with policy-makers, journalists and even friends. Do they make up their minds about what should happen and advocate their version? Are they even aware when they, as Martin Rees puts it, are “acting as citizens”, or do they slip into territories that involve aspects beyond science and speak about them with the kind of authority they use when speaking about science?

Scientists get excellent training in how to be scientific – in logic, rational thinking and how to aim for objectivity. They don’t however get much training in reflecting on their behaviour or language, or really thinking through the boundaries of where scientific evidence comes up against other, murkier areas such as ethics and economics. Scientists rarely get training in how to give advice to policymakers. They may just be thrown into doing it, having observed how other scientists behave.

Pielke argues that on issues where there are high levels of uncertainty or high levels of disagreement the “honest broker” model will contribute both to better policy and to a healthy democracy. It is really up to elected representatives to make the decisions. Scientific evidence is a part of the evidence and context that needs to be considered, albeit an important part.

But I also think there are times when it is ok for scientists to become advocates. In an issue such as climate change, when the Bush administration and others were in denial that it was actually occurring and questioning whether humankind was contributing, there was, and still is, a key role for scientists to act as “advocates” – loudly and collectively. Many have been vocal, including David King, then the UK’s chief scientific advisor, who has claimed that climate change poses a bigger threat than that international terrorism. The main policy options about the issue were: deny, ignore or try to act.

Scientists have a crucial role when it comes to exploring possible routes to mitigating the effects of climate change, and to reversing, or at least reducing it. But if a scientist starts saying “so we must try to geoengineer the planet to combat climate change”, then they are beginning to take an advocacy role. Another territory where some scientists can act as “advocate”, having slipped into “citizen” territory, is the development of GM crops. The evidence that human population is expanding way beyond what current agricultural technologies can provide for is overwhelming, but concluding that a particular technology is the key answer is advocacy. A starting point of “some GM crops may be valuable in some cases” seems closer to being an honest broker.

Once a particular technology has been fixed on, it is too easy for scientists to back up their arguments saying, for example, that for economic reasons the UK must develop GM crops, without really addressing public concerns about impact on the environment or a desire to be able to choose what to eat. Many have made the point that we could “feed the world” right now, but for political and economic reasons, this just is not happening. And that those things should be addressed, rather than just going headlong for a single straight technological fix.

I agree with Rees, scientists do have a special responsibility to engage on policy issues. If your work is relevant, staying in the lab, acting as a “pure scientist” and not entering public discussions means that an important part of the evidence, and an important perspective, may be ignored. But scientists need to be more aware of and, importantly, more clear about when they are straying into speaking as citizens. They need to reflect on when they might be starting to advocate for particular solutions. It’s too easy for them to carry their cloak of authority into territories where evidence beyond the scientific is needed. In their training, scientists should be provoked into thinking about the way science advice is given and how they communicate with non-scientists. And perhaps most importantly, they need to explore with others the ethics, economic and social aspects around their work, so they understand better where the different boundaries lie.