The freedom of scientists to speak out and share their insights is one of the fundamentals of a modern knowledge-based democracy. In its latest Policy on Public Comment document, tabled in the Senate Estimates last week, the CSIRO says its “staff are encouraged to communicate.” And then it sets down no fewer than seven new prohibitions and restrictions to stop them doing so.

The first is that “no staff, other than those listed… should comment to the media unless they have been granted permission to do so.” It turns out that those authorised are top management and the heads of CSIRO Divisions or Flagships. Around 1,800 other scientists are gagged, under pain of “disciplinary action.”

CSIRO is the organisation which has uncovered most of what we know about the continent of Australia – its animals and plants, its landscapes, waters, soils and geology. The free flow of its science has been in no small way responsible for the $90 billion in export income earned today by the farm, minerals and energy sectors.

It now seems that this knowledge is to be withheld from the Australians who actually own it, unless a senior CSIRO bureaucrat gives permission. Under the new rules a CSIRO agricultural researcher attending a farmers’ field day is now prohibited from answering questions frorm an agricultural reporter without first seeking permission from head office.

CSIRO told the Senate Estimates Committee that the Public Comment Policy is “simply a revised version of a previous organisational policy that has been in place for a number of years.” Not true – CSIRO scientists have never been subject to such censorship.

The CSIRO’s decision to gag its scientists is a blow to the institution’s 80-year record of scientific free speech in Australia. Denying the media, public and industry free access to scientific research, which is 90% funded by the public and much of it of high public interest, is also a slap in the face for the Australian community.