162 – CSIRO and the Clive Spash controversy

Recently CSIRO was in the news for allegedly suppressing the publication of a research paper that was critical of government policy on climate change.

In his paper, the author, Clive Spash, basically argues that an emissions trading scheme for greenhouse gases is not a good idea. CSIRO management asked Clive to withdraw the paper after it had already been peer reviewed and accepted by a journal.

The controversy made quite a splash in the media, particularly in the Australian newspaper (e.g. see here, here) and was reported around the world, with CSIRO copping a lot of flack.

Reading the available material, it seems to me that the story is a bit more nuanced than came across in the media.

The heart of the issue is CSIRO’s Policy on Public Comment by CSIRO Staff. The policy basically says it encourages public statements by CSIRO researchers, subject to some constraints. The critical constraint in this case is “Policy Statement 3. CSIRO staff should not advocate, defend or publicly canvass the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or local or foreign governments).”

In explaining this policy, the document says:

As representatives of CSIRO, staff should avoid making direct comment for or against government or opposition policy. In this respect, CSIRO policy may differ from some Australian universities; CSIRO differs in that it is a Commonwealth Government agency. This gives CSIRO the advantage that it can participate directly in the internal policy development processes of government.

As Commonwealth officials CSIRO employees are bound by the Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters – November 1989. These guidelines state that Commonwealth officials:

Should not advocate, defend or canvass the merits of government policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or foreign governments).

 Now, there is something that I didn’t hear in the media. The constraint is not specific to CSIRO – it applies to all Commonwealth employees. CSIRO staff may be researchers, but they are still Commonwealth employees.

While I understand that CSIRO is unavoidably bound by these guidelines, I think it is fair enough for Clive Spash to point out that there is a problem here. It is one thing to say that an administrator in a Commonwealth Department should not be publicly advocating for or against a government policy, but it’s quite another to say that a researcher whose special area of research is evaluation of policy should not be allowed to put out a balanced and peer-reviewed assessment of government policy options, including the current policy. The further restriction in brackets (no comments on policies of previous governments or foreign governments) just seems quite ridiculous if applied to a serious policy researcher. If applied literally, it would mean, for example, that CSIRO researchers could not criticise the decision to import cane toads into Australia. Learning from such mistakes is probably something to be encouraged!

The Chief Executive of CSIRO, Megan Clark, sent an email to her staff reaffirming that “we cannot be a trusted advisor [to] government, industry, the community and people of Australia and at the same time publicly advocate or criticise a particular policy position of government or opposition.” I’m not sure that’s true, really, but even if it is, the policy as written goes much further than advocacy and criticism — it says Clive cannot “canvass the merits of government policies”.

Someone sent me a copy of Clive’s paper (it appears to be a version presented at a conference, which may differ somewhat from the version sent to the journal). I found a lot in the paper that I could agreed with. The headline point, that an emissions trading scheme is not likely to deliver worthwhile environmental, economic or social benefits, is a point I’ve made myself, although for rather different reasons (see PD160). A number of his points, I think, are fair enough.

On the other hand, I have to say, I also found a lot in the paper that I didn’t like. I can see why CSIRO management might feel that it wasn’t as balanced or dispassionate as it could be (remembering that I’ve probably only seen the conference version, not the journal version).

I understand that CSIRO and Clive have now agreed that the paper can be published, with minor changes. I guess this shows that the policy involves judgement and grey areas, because the paper will surely still “canvass the merits of government policies” even if it holds back on specific references to the details of current policy proposals. (Or maybe CSIRO just felt cornered.) [Note, 25 Nov 2009: I’m advised today by Clive that “the paper will not appear via CSIRO”, contrary to press reports. My statement above that agreement had been reached was based on a press report in which Megan Clark is quoted as saying “We have agreed to resolve this matter quickly and all parties will now work to make the amendments with the intention to have the paper ready for publication.” Looking at it again, that doesn’t actually say that they have reached agreement on publication.]

Notably, the government itself doesn’t seem worried about the paper, at least not publicly.

Senator Carr said the government was “not seeking to prevent people from having their say. We take the view that research is contestable, there is no finite answers. This is about people putting forward ideas for public debate.”

Looking at the media coverage, I was struck by the freedom with which Clive offered commentary about his employer. I was also struck that he has a page on his web site headed “Censorship!“. It includes a link to a motion in the senate that relates to the affair, in which he has highlighted the words “censorship” and “uncensored” in large, bold, red text. It seems to me that CSIRO management must have found this testing, and indeed must have been exercising restraint in their public comments. [Note, 2 Dec 2009: I see that the web site has now been toned down somewhat. The “Censorship!” heading has been changed to “Debating Carbon Emissions Trading” and the censorship words are no longer highlighted in red.]

Ironically, if it ever was an attempt by CSIRO to suppress the paper, it has rather backfired. It is now surely the most talked about Australian paper of the year.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

[Note, 25 Nov 2009: I previously falsely attributed a quote from a newspaper article to Clive Spash that was in fact said by Clive Hamilton. My apologies to both Clives for this mistake. Clive Spash contacted me today to point out this mis-quote and to correct my reliance on press coverage which had indicated that an agreement to publish the paper had been reached.]

[Note, 3 Dec 2009: Clive Spash has resigned from CSIRO and called for a government inquiry into the organisation and its interpretation of the Policy on Public Comment. See here.]

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