01 November 2009

Australian Government Allegedly Interferes in Peer Review Process

According to an Australian economist, Clive Spash, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has been attempting to prevent him from publishing a paper critical of carbon trading which had already been accepted for publication. Here is a news report:

THE nation's peak science agency has tried to gag the publication of a paper by one of its senior environmental economists attacking the Rudd government's climate change policies.

The paper, by the CSIRO's Clive Spash, argues the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is an ineffective way to cut emissions, and instead direct legislation or a tax on carbon is needed.

The paper was accepted for publication by the journal New Political Economy after being internationally peer-reviewed.

But Dr Spash told the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics conference that the CSIRO had since June tried to block its publication.

In the paper, Dr Spash argues the economic theory underpinning emissions trading schemes is "far removed" from the reality of permit markets. "While carbon trading and offset schemes seem set to spread, they so far appear ineffective in terms of actually reducing GHGs (greenhouse gases)," he says. "Despite this apparent failure, ETS remain politically popular amongst the industrialised polluters.

"The public appearance is that action is being undertaken. The reality is that GHGs are increasing and society is avoiding the need for substantive proposals to address the problem of behavioural and structural change."

Dr Spash said trading schemes did not efficiently allocate emission cuts because their design was manipulated by vested interests. For example, in Australia, large polluters would be compensated with free permits while smaller, more competitive firms would have to buy theirs at auction. The schemes were also flawed because: global warming was caused by gases other than carbon; emissions were difficult to measure; carbon offsets bought from other countries were of dubious value; and the schemes "crowded out" voluntary action by individuals. He concludes that more direct measures, such as a carbon tax, regulations or new infrastructure would be simpler, more effective and less open to manipulation.

Apparently, Spash went public with his allegations at a conference of the Australia New Zealand Society of Ecological Economists last week:

. . . his presentation to the ANZSEE conference in Darwin last Wednesday stated: "The CSIRO is currently maintaining they have the right to ban the written version of this paper from publication by myself as a representative of the organisation and by myself as a private citizen."

Dr Spash said CSIRO managers had written to the journal's editor demanding the paper not be published.

A look at the ANZSEE website shows the following abstract for Spash's talk, which has the title "The Brave New World of Carbon Trading":
As human induced climate change has become a prominent political issue at the international level so the idea that emission trading can offer the solution has become more popular in government circles. Carbon permits are then fast becoming a serious financial instrument in markets turning over billons of dollars a year. In this paper, I show how the reality of market operation is far removed from the assumptions of economic theory and the promise of saving resources by efficiently allocating emission reductions. The pervasiveness of Greenhouse Gas emissions, strong uncertainty and complexity prevent economists from substantiating their theoretical claims. Corporate power is shown to be a major force affecting emissions market operation and design. The potential for manipulation to achieve financial gain, while showing little regard for environmental or social consequences, is evident as markets have extended internationally and via trading offsets. At the individual level, I explore the potential of emissions trading to have undesirable ethical and psychological impacts and to crowd out voluntary actions. I conclude that the focus on such markets is creating a distraction from the need for changing human behaviour, institutions and infrastructure.
For its part, CSIRO is quoted as defending its action as follows:

CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan said the publication of Dr Spash's paper was an internal matter and was being reviewed by the chief executive's office.

However, he said that under the agency's charter scientists were forbidden from commenting on matters of government or opposition policy.

The CSIRO charter, introduced last year, was trumpeted by Science Minister Kim Carr as a way to guarantee freedom of expression for scientists.

Senator Carr said he was seeking a briefing from the CSIRO.

The CSIRO charter referred to by Huw Morgan can be found here in PDF. The charter states that:
. . . it is essential that those who have expertise in the areas under debate are able to communicate new ideas and to infuse public debate with the best reserch and new knowledge. . .

The Government and the public look to researchers to provide expert advice in their fields. Validation, particularly peer review, is essential to assuring the quality of research and should be the foundation for any public comment.

The Government and CSIRO recognise that there may be divergent views on both issues of public interest and the expert advice that is provided in relation to them. The parties agree that vigorous open debate of these views is important; as is the right of researchers to change their opinion in light of such debate or new findings from research.
The Charter does have the following somewhat ambiguous statement at the very end:
As CSIRO employees, they should not advocate, defend or publicly debate the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or state or local or foreign governments).
This presumably is the clause referred to by Huw Morgan in the news story excerpted above. It could mean that CSIRO researchers should not refer to their policy views as theirs in an official capacity (i.e., this is the stance that NASA has taken with Jim Hansen). A stronger version would be to interpret this statement to mean that CSIRO researchers cannot discuss anything related to government policy. This latter interpretation seems absurd as economists such as Spash conduct reserch on matters related to policy.

I took a look at the CSIRO website and searched for "emissions trading" and came up with 69 results. (But you'd better check my numbers, as such searches can be difficult for me;-) I searched for "carbon pollution reduction scheme" (the Government's name for the Australian ETS) and came up with 31 hits. "Kyoto Protocol" resulted in 56 hits, including this bit of advocacy for the Kyoto Protocol in the form of a CSIRO press release:
The Kyoto Protocol should be considered just the first lap in a long race to reduce the environmental and economic risks associated with climate change, according to a climate risk analyst with CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship, Dr Roger Jones.

7 May 2008

In a keynote address in Sydney today to the Kyoto Policy in Practice conference, Dr Jones says the Kyoto Protocol represents the starting line for a critical assessment of climate change from which the finishing line cannot be seen.

So the idea that CSIRO researchers do not comment on real-world policies is simply false. CSIRO even has a paper a paper on the CSIRO website by one of Spash's collaborators on carbon markets and their problematic implications for natural resource management.

Carbon trading is at the center of domestic debate about climate cahnge in Australia. It is understandable that the government would be sensitive to criticism at this time. How it responds to these allegations will likely shape the short-term debate about Australian climate policy, but as importantly, the longer-term issues of the ability of government researchers to freely express their views and their research. If CSIRO has indeed attempted to meddle in an international peer review process, then there could be significant fallout.

20 comments:

  1. Roger- If you pay people to study policy and then encourage them to publish in peer reviewed literature, I don't know how you can expect them not to, nor should you interfere when they do.

    However, I think peer-reviewed pubs without a chance for comment and discourse is no way to have a good dialogue about public policy. If the scientists worked for me, I would alter the incentive structure for their policy-related pubs to public publishing and dialogue and a rating by policy users after reading the paper and the responses to public review and dialogue.

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  2. Roger, you are wrong to suggest the government would be interested in supressing Dr Spash's criticism of the CPRS. A number of well-known Australian economists have been publically critical of the CPRS. One more economist is definitely not news - and there would be zero political advantage in preventing him publishing in an academic journal.

    But the suppression is news, and embarrassing for the government as it installed the charter you quote. I imagine the minister is not happy.

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  3. -2-andrewt

    You have implied something that I did not say -- I said that the government would be sensitive to criticism, not that it would have an interest in suppression.

    I actually agree with you, there is no political advantage to the suppression (as we have seen in the various US cases), so what gives?

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  4. Roger, your headline is "Australian Government Allegedly Interferes in Peer Review Process" - the news report suggested CSIRO managers made the decision and did not suggest political involvement. I assumed you were providing motivation for the (new) allegation that the government was involved.

    If the facts are as reported - and its only reported in The Australian so far - given the lack of political relevance of a paper in "New Political Economy", I'd guess there was zero political involvement and managers within the CSIRO made a (probably) bad decision for reasons that I can't guess.

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  5. Andrew.. the government is composed of politicals and career folks.. but they are both "government" no?

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  6. -4-andrewt

    CSIRO is a part of the government. I don't know who in CSIRO made the decision and neither do you, so it is best to await further info.

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  7. According to Clive as far as I understood it was the chief of the Sustainable Ecosystems Division that Clive works for that wrote to the journal. BTW it is the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics, not Environmental Economics (I'm the treasurer). My wife works for CSIRO as an economist (in the Entomology Division) and that was the first she had heard of such a policy.

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  8. -7-David

    Many thanks, I corrected the name, sorry about that. For readers David's blog has a mention of this:

    http://stochastictrend.blogspot.com/2009/11/csiro-tries-to-ban-paper-critical-of.html

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  9. Roger, "Australian government" in a context llike this usually refers to elected politicians (ministers) and their staff, and does not include the 100,000+ government employees (or the judiciary, or the governor-general)

    That is what the journalist you quote means by government, and I assumed its what you meant.

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  10. -9-andrewt

    I capitalized "Government" in the post when referring specifically to the Rudd Government.

    Next time please feel free to ask rather than assuming, OK?

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  11. From the news report, note the following excerpts:

    (1) Dr. Spash said trading schemes did not efficiently allocate emission cuts because their design was manipulated by vested interests.

    (2) The schemes were also flawed because: global warming was caused by gases other than carbon; emissions were difficult to measure; carbon offsets bought from other countries were of dubious value; and the schemes "crowded out" voluntary action by individuals.

    Please make a note of the term “scheme” used over and over again. The term “scheme” is used in Economics to identify operational/organizational error.

    What Dr. Spash is pointing out is that Cap and Trade is a scheme not really addressing the underlying problem. “Schemes” are identified in Economics but addressed in the sub-discipline Political-Economy. “Schemes” are more Political in nature.

    Here is what Spash is saying:

    (1) a family has two children that watch too much TV that supposedly creates behavioral problems,

    (1a) “watching too much TV” has been identified as the behavioral problem without irrefutable data. That is, the behavior problem may be due to other reasons or be a much more dynamic problem, or it may not be the problem,

    (1b) regardless, with out the input of further discussion or data, its arbitrarily decided TV watching is the problem,

    (2) to solve the problem the parents are going to trade TV Credits,

    (3) one child may or may not have to pay for tv Credits. The other child is going to have to pay for TV Credits,

    (4) TV watching has become more expensive for the children,

    (5) the children perceive TV as an important item. The children look for an entity to pass- on-the-cost to, regarding more expensive TV watching,

    (6) the children pass on the cost by doing less chores or the same level of chores at a lower quality,

    (7) meanwhile the parents collect the TV Tax from the children through “a chores allowance tax”. This tax then allows the parent to Trade the TV Credits. The revenue of the TV Credit trading then is spent on general family revenue and not on reducing the problem,

    (8) children watching too much TV, the problem, has not changed, it has merely become more expensive and that additional expense was passed on, with the additional expense becoming a revenue item not used to solve the problem.

    Also, in #2 above note this aspect: “The schemes were also flawed because: global warming was caused by gases other than carbon; emissions were difficult to measure…”.

    This means Spash, a social scientist, can see that the underlying problem identified as CO2 is in fact not supported by conclusive data. That other phenomena are at work.

    In the end, Spash is saying the underlying problem is not correct, and regardless of the correctness regarding the identification of the problem, Cap and Trade Schemes are clearly not the solution.

    Poor old Spash is going to end up with the CO2 Clergy on his front lawn.

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  12. Friends:

    CSIRO is attempting to prevent one of its employees publishing a paper that disagrees with a policy of the Australian government. CSIRO is an agency of the Australian Government.

    Some here seem to be objecting to the action of CSIRO. But the objection is an example of a continuing misunderstanding. A similar example exists in the UK where there is loud complaint from some scientists at the sacking of a UK government advisor on drugs policy.

    The misunderstanding is that civil servants - be they "scientists" or anything else - are entitled to provide independent opinions: but civil servants are not permitted to provide personal opinions to the public. Indeed, in the case of CIRO this is explicitly stated in its Charter as quoted by R Pileke jnr. It says;
    “As CSIRO employees, they should not advocate, defend or publicly debate the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or state or local or foreign governments).”

    Government scientists provide governments with scientific information that government needs to justify government policies. They may also provide government with 'warnings' in the form of additional and contra-information but any such provision must be strictly confidential between them and government. Government scientists are not entitled to make any public statements that contradict government policy because such public statements are in direct contravention of their task as government scientists.

    Independent scientists provide independent information and assessments. They do this privately and confidentially. And the confidentiality includes their having no official connection or input to government (but governments commission them to provide confidential information to governments). Hence, independent scientists can publicly express any view they like.

    I was employed by the UK's National Coal Board (NCB) for decades. The NCB was state-owned and, therefore, I was indirectly employed by UK government. Throughout that employment I was not permitted to make any public statement that would contradict UK government policies concerning energy, coal and/or environmental issues. If I had made such a public statement then I would have been dismissed from my employment and would have had all my pension rights removed. If I wanted to make such statements then I would have needed to resign from that employment first. Having ceased that employment and now being an independent scientist, I can and do publicly oppose such government policies.

    Spash is in a similar situation concerning his employment by CSIRO as I was in my employment by NCB.

    It is the job of government scientists to not be independent and to only support government policy. If they oppose government policy then they can expect to be censured.

    No dog has ever been permitted to bite the hand that feeds it.

    Regards

    Richard S Courtney

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  13. Richard- in our country it's a bit more complicated than that. Our "doing" organizations in government hire scientists to advise them.
    We generally feel we can express our own views in the approved channels or on our own time (we have had previous discussions on the blog about this).

    However, we also have scientists hired to do research in our government research organizations. Generally the government does not interfere with the content of their pubs (unless they are poor quality or the pontification to data ratio is higher than the culturally approved level for that discipline).

    This certainly leads to some dichotomies; but policy making is never entirely about "science" and different groups of scientists and practitioners can disagree. I don't know of a policy that can be hardwired from scientific paper directly to regulation or legislation.

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  14. Richard S Courtney:
    "It is the job of government scientists to not be independent and to only support government policy. If they oppose government policy then they can expect to be censured."

    If that is the case then why should the government waste its money on scientists, they should just hire PR flacks to act as mouthpieces for government policy. If government scientists can only support government policy and not oppose it then they are not doing science, and will completely erode their credibility.

    Of course that may explain why public support for action on climate change is collapsing in the UK.

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  15. Sharon:

    Thankyou for your explanation of the slightly different policy in Australia.

    However, you say;
    "I don't know of a policy that can be hardwired from scientific paper directly to regulation or legislation."

    As I undrstand it, and quoting from R Pielke jnr (above),
    "The paper, by the CSIRO's Clive Spash, argues the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is an ineffective way to cut emissions, and instead direct legislation or a tax on carbon is needed."

    That does seem to me to be a direct opposition to a policy of the Government that employs Spash. And I am astonished that he did not seek official approval for publication of his paper prior submitting it for publication.

    Regards

    Richard

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  16. In today's Australian (Nov 3)

    "The gagging of Dr. Spash's work is embarrassing for Science Minister Kim Carr, who defended academic freedoms in opposition and last year trumpeted a new CSIRO charter he said would give scientists the right to speak publicly about their findings.
    Yesterday, Senator Carr told The Australian he supported the publication of peer-reviewed research, even if it had negative implications for government policy. He said he had not tried to gag the research."
    Last night CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark said the organisation would work (sic)with Dr. Spash on his paper.
    "There is some important science in the paper and we will now work with Dr. Spash to ensure the paper meets CSIRO guidelines of the Public Research Agency Charter between the CSIRO and the federal government ", she said.
    "I encourage CSIRO scientists to communicate the outcomes and implications of their work and one of the underlying core values of CSIRO is the integrity of our excellent science".
    This month Dr. Splash was informed he could not publish the paper in his private capacity, because it was "politically sensitive". "Within 24 hours, he also received a letter outlining a list of trivial instances in which he was accused of breaching CSIRO policy, for example not completing a leave form properly".
    Put this in your files as another example where alternate explanations of the science or the critiquing of policy are censured.

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  17. Richard,

    After I wrote the post, I realized that I had oversimplified our approach, and then I had extrapolated from my life experience to the universe of US science and policy institutions, and then was not clear that I was talking about the US. Mea maxima culpa!

    Anyway, what I meant to say vis a vis my use of the term "hardwiring" is that a particular piece of information derived from scientific study seldom can be transferred directly to policy without a set of intervening judgment calls which are not strictly scientific in nature.

    I think it would be great fun if we could get some scientist who is weighing in on public policy to lay out her logic path so that we could all rate the "scienciness" (thank you, Steven Colbert!) of each logic step between research study and policy recommendation.

    Yours, wonkishly,

    Sharon

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  18. I am familiar with CSIRO's restrictions on publication, and this is a routine kerfuffle. The restriction on comment in the Charter that RP quotes has existed for many years. All democracies have some restriction on government employees making statements on government policy. In the British/Australian system, the principle is that they advise the Minister, and the minister makes any statements needed.

    Of course, there are fuzzy lines. It's hard to publish in economics, say, strictly observing that rule. There's also usually some right to engage in politics in a private capacity, but drawing the boundary is difficult and discretion is needed.

    I suspect that the argument for CSIRO's attempt to prevent this publication even in a private capacity is that, having been originally submitted as a CSIRO paper, it was clearly prepared using government resources. I doubt that CSIRO has attempted to override peer review - from their point of view the quality of the paper is not at issue, only the subject matter. Ultimately, as Huw Morgan says, it's between CSIRO and Dr Spash. Journals have no requirement to respect CSIRO's difficulty.

    These issues are always sharpened when there is an active debate in Parliament, and bodies like CSIRO do have to be very careful not to be seen as intervening.

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  19. Kaz:

    Your message indicates the most important fact in this debate; viz.
    All statements by 'government scientists' are more controlled by politicians than statements by other scientists are controlled by anybody (e.g. 'big oil').

    You selectively quote me as saying:
    "It is the job of government scientists to not be independent and to only support government policy. If they oppose government policy then they can expect to be censured."

    And you comment on that statement by saying;
    "If that is the case then why should the government waste its money on scientists, they should just hire PR flacks to act as mouthpieces for government policy."

    The question you pose is answered in my statements (which you did not quote) saying;
    "Government scientists provide governments with scientific information that government needs to justify government policies. They may also provide government with 'warnings' in the form of additional and contra-information but any such provision must be strictly confidential between them and government."

    As you say;
    "If government scientists can only support government policy and not oppose it then they are not doing science, and will completely erode their credibility."

    Yes! That is the important point. It SHOULD "erode their credibility".

    However, the misunderstanding I stated in my first post (above) induces some to pretend that it enhances the "credibility" of 'government scientists'.

    Richard

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  20. Another way of thinkign about this is to do a thought experiment. The government hires lawyers and scientists to advise them. Is it OK for government lawyers to publish in law journals positions that are against what their client wants to do.. that, in fact, points out all the legal arguments that the client has heard and decided to go in another direction and accept some risk (everything in policy requires an element of risk).?
    And if not, why would scientists be required to follow different rules to be "credible"?
    Unless somehow "scientific" knowledge, as opposed to practitioner knowledge, experiential knowledge or legal knowledge is uniquely priveleged.

    Perhaps the solution is to only have in house science advisors and not an entire government research branch whose employees are rated on pubs. Pubs vs. toeing the party line may lead to dichotomies such as we have observed. We usually don't have legal think tanks with publication requirements in the government, and perhaps then do not run into these kinds of difficulties.

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