Bruce Thom Blog - Speaking Truth to Power

In the summer edition of The Monthly, in an article on the former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, the comment was made on how little the work she had devoted most of her life to –academic research—mattered in the public realm. She went further in arguing that academics need to get better at putting their research into plain language, and researching topics that matter. She thinks government “could rightly demand” that universities do more “relevant research”, and work harder at communicating the results to a general audience.

This is a theme that was pushed years ago by a founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, the late Professor Peter Cullen. In 2006, he offered the view that scientists have an obligation to ensure that their knowledge and insights are available to the community that funds them. In a talk on “Speaking Truth to Power”, he explained how the committed and knowledgeable scientists can make an influential contribution to public policy.

Early in 2017, Professor Naomi Oreskes speaking at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston appealed to scientists to speak up on politically sensitive topics such as climate change; her key point was that facts alone do not speak very well without context and that scientists must consider themselves as “sentinels” raising alarm to governments and communities about the relevance of their work in the public domain. She recognised that many are reluctant for a variety of reasons “to cross the line into policy” and that there is always a likelihood that one’s credibility will be threatened. But ultimately history has shown that science has the power to change society’s perception about a particular contentious issue.

She recognised that many are reluctant for a variety of reasons “to cross the line into policy” and that there is always a likelihood that one’s credibility will be threatened. But ultimately history has shown that science has the power to change society’s perception about a particular contentious issue.

Recently, Don Wright and I have just completed a chapter for a book Don is editing; the chapter is titled “Promoting Resilience of Tomorrow’s Coasts”. We ask the question as to whether many universities are up to the task of true interdisciplinary research which we see as the path to improving policy outcomes given the complex nature of interconnected biophysical and socio-economic issues confronting populated coasts of the world. There continues to be a bias towards maintaining individual discipline standards and rewards which we see as impeding interdisciplinary work. In addition, competition within and between universities tends to stifle collaboration and exchange of ideas prior to formal publication of results. I recall as a Vice-Chancellor having to challenge a senior academic who refused to offer guidance to others in the university who were seen as a potential threat to him in obtaining grant funds.

Don and I offered a scenario for the future where new entities will emerge that promote interdisciplinary synergies that facilitate the inclusion of industry and government groups along with academics in areas of natural resource management; the Wentworth Group fits this model quite well albeit on a small scale. One could argue that organisations such as CSIRO perform this role. However, my experience over the last three decades is that it has evolved in ways that limit its capacity to always offer sound independent multidisciplinary research and advice. Wentworth Group retains an independence from government funding and has developed a strong cross disciplinary approach to a range of national problems including water reform and environmental accounting. It has been able to bring in contributors who for a variety of reasons cannot be formal members of what some see as an advocacy group, and does its best to write in plain language that speaks truth to power.

The model Don and I see as emerging in the USA and elsewhere also goes beyond the confines of individual universities or government agencies. It could evolve into an independent consortium supporting highly credentialed natural and social scientists that can address questions of risk and resilience in the new climate era. It should be capable of utilising open-source empirical and numerical data with an extensible cyber infrastructure for managing and accessing information. This then paves the way for developing visualisation and other tools to improve the capacity of researchers to communicate the relevance of that information to communities and decision-makers. Observed changes to environmental conditions can then be used to calibrate models. This will enable potential impacts (positive and negative) of adaptive approaches to be assessed and tipping points identified in advance. There is also scope for international collaboration to enable knowledge creation in response to societal needs in many different countries. In this way there will be improved capacities for the development and implementation of adaptive regional strategies to help nations cope with a warming planet.

 

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 29 December 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org 

 

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