One of the recently convicted Italian Scientists, Bernardo De Bernardini (Photo guardian.co.uk)
Following the conviction of Italian scientists for manslaughter, CPSU's Dr Michael Borgas discusses how a new campaign for a Scientific Integrity Charter will help protect scientific research across the federal public sector.
Scientists everywhere received the news from Italy with disbelief, dismay, dire predictions for scientific freedom and fears that the prosecution and conviction would set a dangerous precedent.
It’s tempting to imagine that the Italian decision is so far beyond the pale that it could not be repeated in a country such as our own.
Yet we can hardly hold up Australia as a global paragon of scientific virtue. Far from it.
As any scientist working in the federal public sector can tell you, the last five years have witnessed a dramatic increase in domestic attacks on Australian scientists and the research that they perform.
Increasingly scientists have found themselves targeted and their motives questioned.
This erosion of scientific integrity is dangerous as it undermines the public’s confidence in the work that scientists perform, especially in the public sector where science reaches into every corner of Australian life.
The federal public sector boasts an impressive roll call of science in the service of the national interest.
We trust and rely on the Bureau of Meteorology to mitigate the risks of fire, flood and storm.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and Quarantine Inspection Service protect Australia’s biosecurity from paddock to plate and airport gate.
Geoscience Australia keeps the engine room of the economy humming through their services to mineral and energy exploration, safeguards the nation by mapping natural disaster impacts, and ensures the accuracy of our GPS reference systems.
Our 34,000 kilometres of coastline with their abundance of natural resources benefit from the expertise of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).
The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) OPAL reactor produces radioisotopes for cancer detection and treatment. The Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s (DSTO) contribution includes the Jindalee Operational Radar network, which monitors Australia’s strategic northern approaches in a 3,000 kilometre arc from Geraldton to Cairns.
In many respects, CSIRO does it all. Agriculture, astronomy, biodiversity and sustainability, human and animal health, land and water research, livestock industries, industrial materials and engineering processes, mathematics and informatics, energy and primary resources, climate science, information and communication technology – the list goes on.
The federal public sector is trusted to discover, apply and communicate science in a frank and fearless manner, without political or commercial interference.
Our proposed Science Integrity Charter is built on a set of five key principles: the open communication and dissemination of scientific work; encouraging the internal and external debate of science issues; the contestability of uncertain science; the independence of public sector institutions and their staff and effective collaboration.
Hundreds of science workers across the federal public sector have already signed a petition calling on Science and Research Minister Chris Evans to support the development and implementation of the charter.
The CPSU has also made direct representations on the issue of science integrity to the Minister, Parliamentarians and Agency heads.
As scientists, we are not so naïve as to believe that science will trump politics when it comes to decision making. Policymakers must weigh a range of considerations, of which the scientific research is just a part.
Our role is to identify and research the issues with impartiality. In turn, it is the job of the rest of the community and their elected representatives to determine the policy response.
Protecting the integrity of the evidence is critical to maintaining confidence in the process itself. On science advice Albert Einstein once said: “The explanation must be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
And for simple explanations to be effective, they must be honest and credible.
The challenges that our growing global population faces are immense. We confront a future with diminishing natural resources, rising temperatures, less predictable climate and the decline of arable land. Biodiversity is already in steep decline and our energy needs outstrip supply.
To meet these challenges we will rely on the integrity of science and the responsible use of research by society like never before.
Dr Michael Borgas is a Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO and President of CPSU’s CSIRO Section.