In a country where we pride ourselves on democracy and freedom of speech why are we seeing a worrying trend of attacks on scientists reporting the findings of their work?
There is no doubt that there are many science issues that quickly invoke robust debates some of which can become very emotive. For the most part though, it should be cause for celebration that there are so many Australians engaged in science based conversations with varying opinions and feelings on the matter.
Differing opinions however are not a licence for ridicule – or worse.
What is important to remember is that scientists have conducted extensive research into their chosen field of study, and do not lay claims without evidence to support their findings.
As experts in their field, they then have an obligation to use that expertise to help inform the public. If they are not able to be heard then it is impossible for people to have a well informed debate on any given issue. The experts are not setting out to incite anger or encourage threatening behaviour, they are communicating the findings of their extensive research.
I do not suggest that these scientists write policies, that is the role of the Government. I do believe though that it is important for their research to be heard and understood in order for the policy writers to make the most informed choices possible.
Science must be seen in context and when controversial or difficult discoveries are made, we need to take communities with us in order for them to be able have their concerns dealt with correctly, weighing up both the pros and the cons of the issue.
Sometimes scientific research can lead to discoveries and findings that people do not want to hear – but that does not mean that they shouldn’t hear them. Nor that governments should not respond to them.
I am currently working on ”the profile and sustainability” of Australian science and the forces guiding its future. Certainly there appears to be a decline in interest in some fields in schools and universities, and that is not good for the future. And we should know why.
Science is part of our everyday lives and the world can’t do without it. We need to encourage and advocate for a greater respect of science. When thinking or talking about science it doesn’t always mean complicated physics, or the life saving discoveries, sometimes it’s the everyday science that can be life changing and that should not be underestimated or taken for granted.
As I am sure you are all aware, the benefits of scientific endeavours are all around us. From cough medicine; to the plastic cup for your coffee; the transport that you use to get to and from work and indeed, even the computer you are reading this blog from, it’s all part of the cumulative work of scientists and engineers.
Science is an inevitable and crucial part of our world and as such, scientists should be able to report openly the results of their research without fear or favour – without ridicule or worse..
It is up to all of us to uphold the integrity of how these discussions are managed. Without integrity we all suffer and our democratic processes are diminished.
Written by Professor Ian Chubb
Chief Scientist for Australia