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New study identifies eight reforms to defend against increasing threats to scientific integrity

Team of scientists compared recent developments in US, Canada, and Australia to identify policies which should be supported by scientists and scientific societies active on the issue.

In a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology, a transnational team of scientists associated with scientific societies in the US, Canada, and Australia has identified eight reforms which are needed to defend the scientific integrity of policy processes related to conservation of endangered species and ecosystems.

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing trends globally to attack scientific integrity.

"To halt the current biodiversity crisis we need evidence-based solutions," said Dr. James Watson, co-author of the paper. "Scientific integrity is critical to this and must allow government scientists to communicate their research to the public and media in the same way the medical profession does."

Recent assaults on science and scientists under the Trump administration are particularly extreme but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity. Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest scientific demonstration in history, this event took place in over 600 locations globally.

"Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data should not be curtailed," Watson, former president of the Society for Conservation Biology, said. "Such limits on accessing taxpayer-funded information undermines the ability of citizens to participate in decisions that affect them or even to know why decisions are being made."

The new paper in Conservation Biology proposes that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. The paper summarizes eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawing on lessons learned in Australia, Canada, and the US.

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use, and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can normally communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicize, or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Such limits on accessing taxpayer-funded information undermines the ability of citizens to participate in decisions that affect them or even to know why decisions are being made.

The new study identifies four key steps by which this outbound scientific communication be safeguarded:

1. Strengthen scientific integrity policies;

2. Include scientists’ right to speak freely in collective bargaining agreements;

3. Guarantee public access to scientific information;

4. Strengthen agency culture supporting scientific integrity.

Scientific integrity also requires that information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, is transparently considered by policymakers. Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that science plays in them.

The new study describes four key reforms by which this inbound communication be safeguarded:

1. Broaden the scope of independent peer reviews;

2. Ensure greater diversity of input with transparency regarding conflicts of interest;

3. Require substantive response to input by agencies;

4. Engage proactively with scientific societies and organizations.

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists must shift away from reactive defense of protections for scientific integrity and toward their expansion. The goal is to institutionalize a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies. A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

Science and politics

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not negatively affect their credibility

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries, and communicating the significance of the results publicly. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available. Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role in defending such public participation by scientists, which is more important than ever. Scientists have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to promote and affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These actions can help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.

Dr. Carlos Carroll is an ecologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, in Orleans, California. As President of the Society for Conservation Biology North America from July 2015 to July 2017, Dr. Carroll led the effort which resulted in the new paper.