Scientists raise alarm over research interference
Scientists say heavy-handed governments and aggressive corporations are suppressing scientific research vital for protecting the environment.
James Cook University’s Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance says many governments and corporations have a vested interest in environmental matters and promote information supporting their views—with some stifling or delaying important research.
“Such actions may be undermining science as an independent guide to policymaking and conservation management,” said Professor Laurance.
He said Australia’s near neighbour Indonesia harbours the largest expanses of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia, with nearly unrivalled numbers of critically endangered species, but is showing worrying signs of cracking down on environmental research.
“In September last year, five leading conservation scientists were essentially banned from conducting further conservation work in the country after the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry accused them of operating with ‘negative intentions’ that could ‘discredit’ the government,” said Professor Laurance.
He said this followed the deportation of a scientist in 2020 after he published estimates of wildfire extent that were substantially larger than those of the Indonesian government.
“Studies by both Indonesian and international researchers on sensitive subjects have stagnated for years because they require Indonesian government approval before release,” said Professor Laurance.
He said academic suppression is not unique to Indonesia.
“A recent survey of ecologists in Australia found widespread government interference that stifled public debate, and the Brazilian government fired officials with opposing views on deforestation, while scientists in Sweden were threatened with legal action by private corporations over publication of a study revealing a link between tax havens and environmental exploitation,” said Professor Laurance.
He said a Turkish scientist was also imprisoned for over a year after publishing research revealing a link between pollution and cancer in western Turkey.
Professor Laurance said there are ways of fighting back.
“International funding schemes could require data transparency for studies they support and scientists could establish ‘whistle-blower safehouses’ or anonymised journals where they can safely contribute sensitive information,” said Professor Laurance.
He said ultimately, it is in everyone’s interests for governments and corporations to leave scientists free to do their work.
“Governments and corporations are made up of people with families too. If we’re all going to have a world worth living in, for our children and ourselves, we need to know what’s happening with the environment now.
“Powerful actors need to stop trying to influence research results for their own ends, if biodiversity conservation is to have a fighting chance of success. If they don’t, and it fails, we will all - without exception - bear the consequences.”
Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance