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The Forum > Article Comments > Free the boffins from political interference > Comments

Free the boffins from political interference : Comments

By Julian Cribb, published 23/2/2006

Muzzling scientists robs Australia of knowledge that belongs to everyone.

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Julian, 5-6 years ago I wrote a paper on the economics of information and intellectual property. Drawing on Curtiss W Priest, I noted that the crucial aspect of information is its role in changing behaviour and outcomes, and defined information as a communication that produces a change in the tendencies of an individual or group to choose certain actions over other actions. A key character of much information is that it is instrumental in achieving other goods and services - it makes their creation or improvement possible.

In respect of government IP, I argued that the broad objective of policy should be to maximise its contribution to social welfare. The key underlying principles for this are in my following post.

The US has by far the most innovative economy. This is in part because it has long required that the outcomes of government research should be placed in the public domain. Canada and the UK adopted similar policies some years ago. By contrast, the Queensland Government moved in the opposite direction, in the misguided belief that they would benefit more from closely controlling government IP than making it available for economic development or other uses. The same government also has a strong “Freedom From Information” policy.
Posted by Faustino, Thursday, 23 February 2006 3:44:04 PM
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Underlying principles for policy on government information and intellectual property:

1. The role of government is to enhance the welfare of the community;
2. The provision of information which is an instrumental good is a major contributor to development of knowledge and understanding which underpins human welfare; therefore
3. Information which is an instrumental good should be easily and freely accessible to all.

In part drawing on the work of Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian,
4. Government should not be involved in the creation of information and intellectual property unless the following (necessary but not sufficient) conditions are met –
4.1 the information generates positive externalities;
4.2 private production of the information would occur under monopolised conditions; or
4.3 the government is likely to be especially efficient at producing the information.

5. Government information should be readily available to all citizens and other interested parties. Where it is considered by government that access should be restricted, e.g. on privacy grounds, the net benefits of restriction should be demonstrated. The potential discomfiture of government would not be sufficient to restrict access;

6. Where government information is being provided, it should be done at no cost or at a price not exceeding the avoidable costs of provision. Information or intellectual property which might be commercially exploited should be available at no more than the cost of provision in order to foster economic development; and

7. An exception to (6) is that pricing of government products or intellectual property which is, or is potentially, in competition with private sector providers should be done on a fully-cost-reflective, competitively neutral, basis.
Posted by Faustino, Thursday, 23 February 2006 3:45:55 PM
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Julian doesn't go into reasons why scientist's might keep silent by their own free-choice without pressure from the organisation's they belong to. One is the danger of being exposed to public vilification, such as assertions that they would only speak if they were being paid to do so. I write online opinions and this implication has come up twice at least during the comments on those pieces.

A second would be silence to avoid jeapardising their ability to get research grants because of any public expression of controversial political opinions - that is their own self interest to preserve a career.

A third is the danger of legal action by NGO lobby groups as a tool to suppress fair but robust public comment. I personally know of three instances of this. Apparently it is OK for many NGOs to slander commercial organisations, but questioning of NGOs is seen as slander that is legally actionable. Why the double standard?

These are very real reasons that don't come out in Julian's opinion piece.
Posted by d, Thursday, 23 February 2006 4:58:48 PM
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Hi y'all
This seems a nice little thread. A pity more people aren't concerned about the topic. But, then, from what I've seen so far, large swags of people in OLO, like the general population, are scientifically illiterate. This is not to disparage them, but to explain the low posts here and on other scientifically oriented topics.

I'm not a fan of Karl Popper, but the notion that a scientist is someone whose job each day is to try and prove wrong his own ideas and those of his colleagues, i.e. to falsify the claims of a theory, is very appealing. However, it relies absolutely on the theories and the claims being known and open to falsification.

That the management and political masters of a scientific organisation would muzzle scientific opinion being made public is an offence against a free society in that it prevents this process of falsification and testing of theories and claims. Stacking boards and senior management to provide tacit controls is equally offensive, especially where the directors appointed are not disinterested.

Frankly, I believe non-national security items from cabinet should be made public with the budget review each year as well. For the same reasons.

Posted by odsoc, Thursday, 23 February 2006 7:52:33 PM
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I dont have a problem with scientists making public comments about the science in which they are invovled in and expert at. But I have a big problem with those same scientists manipulating the public policy out come involving that same area, with comments are are blatantlty biased and misleading. There are plenty of exmaples of the former and even more examples of the latter. The CSIRO's work on climate change under the old DAR was absolutely full of the latter,and no more so than the pathetic reports prepared for various State labour governments on the impacts of climate change.
Posted by bigmal, Friday, 24 February 2006 8:17:42 AM
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The "outcomes" from organisations such as CSIRO and ABARE are appallingly transparent. Outcomes are obviously decided prior to any research as outcomes only support government mandates. The data is often misrepresented in such a way as to supposedly vaguely support the outcome. As most only read and report the outcome summary, the outcome is reported widely and assumed to be the outcome of genuine research.
eg. Our Federal government has a mandate to "provide a path to market for GM crops". Anyone receiving Federal funding must not make any announcement that could impede this mandate.
CSIRO is promoting GM crops when in reality they are looking at supporting government mandates and gaining corporate investment into their projects and individuals within CSIRO are reprimanded for expressing any GM concern.
There are good reasons why no GM wheat is grown anywhere in the world but of course the truth does not provide the desired outcome to "provide a pathway to market for GM crops". How can any researcher calculate a supposed blanket 5% "benefit" for GM wheat in the outcome summary when the AWB has made it clear in their policy that none of our pool customers want GM wheat and it is too difficult and too expensive to segregate it? ABARE excluded segregation costs and market rejection when estimating a profit for GM crops but that technicality wasn't mentioned in the outcome.
If CSIRO, the government or ABARE were to be liable for their misinformation we would not mind so much, but they expect farmers to be liable for the decisions made based on this misinformation!
The best way to remind institutes and individuals of the importance of honesty, transparency and accountability is to hold an enquiry and insist on liability for deliberately misleading information.
...and d(David Tribe), scientists would only be liable for speaking out if they did not tell the truth!
Posted by NonGMFarmer, Monday, 27 February 2006 12:43:55 PM
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