Scientists trade their lab coats for pin stripes
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, David Penberthy reduced his belief in climate change to a simple proposition. “[W]hen it comes to the basic questions of science,” he wrote, “forgive me for sticking with the guys in the lab coats.” Whether or not this coincides with majority opinion, as he assumes, it reflects a quaint view of scientific practice.
Does Penberthy hold to the romantic image of scientists depicted in Hollywood classics like Madame Curie? Is he thinking of ascetics in white coats, toiling over test tubes in dingy laboratories, ruining their health for truth and human progress? If so, he needs to broaden his perspective. For one thing, he needs to catch up with the transformed higher education landscape of recent times.
The media’s groupthink on climate change suppresses some natural questions. What should we make of the near-unanimity of opinion among a cohort of scientists in such a complex and dynamic field? Is there more to it than consistent measurements, experimental results and interpretations?
Journalists had a field day when Senator Nick Minchin fingered the post-communist Left. Cries of “conspiracy theory” have resonated since. But there are more mundane factors to consider.
Compared to past decades, financial considerations now play a more significant role in setting academic research priorities. This isn’t news. Nor is the tendency of universities to shift social agendas in a leftward, and so self-promoting, direction. These trends together with growing demands on the tertiary sector, public funding constraints and increasing resort to private sources of revenue, have politicised and commercialised the research environment.
This isn’t to say that researchers commonly falsify their data for political or financial ends. It means that universities, faculties, research institutions and individual researchers compete for influence and dollars. As the sector expands, competition becomes ever more intense. For many in the system, moreover, employment conditions are less secure than academic tenure. Some find themselves juggling the roles of researcher, IT specialist, administrator and entrepreneur. This is far from the cloistered world of Madame Curie.
Does any of this affect the way climate research is presented to the public?
When an academic discipline is caught up in issues of public controversy, these trends can have perverse consequences. For the right people, climate science has all the makings of a honey-pot — diffuse panic, friendly media coverage, eager politicians with large cheque books, new legislative frameworks, a global network of collaborators and the driving force of the United Nations. In these conditions monetary and ideological considerations are inseparable. Are we to believe scientists are immune from such inducements?
Consider the Climate Change Research Centres and Sustainability Institutes springing up all over the university system. Clearly, they are about more than pure scientific research. They are semi-commercial operations with public or private sector clients and budget imperatives comparable to those of professional service firms. Many strident advocates of climate action are found in them, rather than conventional science faculties. It’s often forgotten that the term “sustainability” is a political concept, not a natural process; it’s as much about political science as natural science. On the one hand, scientists shape public policy outcomes, on the other they exploit ensuing opportunities.
At ease presenting computer models to business meetings, climate scientists wouldn’t be caught dead wearing lab coats.
There’s no need for conspiracy theories; the incentives for collusive practices are real. At the very least, climate researchers share potent commonalities of interests.
None of these developments are unique to Australia, of course.
So, does all of this affect the way climate research is presented to the public?
The answer is yes, if developments at East Anglia University‘s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) are anything to go by. CRU emails released by hackers expose behaviour patterns which elevate institutional interests above professional obligations. Amongst other things, senior researchers suppressed inconvenient data, manipulated results and tried to subvert peer-review mechanisms. All were casually accepted as features of a group culture. Yet such malpractices were inevitable given the incentives, not to mention the fog of panic and intolerance enveloping climate science for so long.
Since government is by far the most important element in the structure of inducements influencing the research community, the CRU scandal has clear lessons for Mr Rudd. Not just because the science of global warming may not be as settled as we’re told. But also because the manipulation of scientific questions for political purposes, whether to drive a wedge through opposition parties, or to hold the “middle ground”, or to gain status in international forums, introduces powerful distortions into the process of scientific enquiry, to the detriment of taxpayers who so generously fund it.
John Muscat is a lawyer, and co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.