(Image: Unsplash/Ousa Chea)

Australian scientists have survived a staggering number of political, media and institutional attacks over the past six years. Hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t be striking today if the experts were taken seriously by our leaders.

Now, on top of the Coalition’s new inquiry into water run-off, the Nationals this week adopted a policy establishing an “independent science quality assurance agency” to “provide quality assurance and verification of scientific papers which are used to influence, formulate or determine public policy”. Policy sponsor George Christensen alleged on Facebook that many of the scientific papers railroading farmers, coal miners, and industry “have never been tested and their conclusions may be wrong”.

But ignore the politicians for a change (please, even for a second, let’s ignore the politicians). How do scientists publish papers that, ultimately, might influence public policy? Crikey chucks on our student lab coat to find out.

How are research papers published?

Peak body Science and Technology Australia (STA), which represents more than 75,000 Australian scientists and technologists, was quick to point out that the “work of scientists is arguably subjected to a greater rigour and scrutiny than any other professional group”.

While processes vary by discipline and quality, for any research to be published in a journal worth its salt it has to face both internal editorial review and then peer review by independent, relevant experts, who assess the research and submit recommendations.

For example, the Australian Academy of Science’s investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region in NSW over the summer of 2018–19 was commissioned by Bill Shorten, but undertaken by an panel of 10 renowned experts across separate Australian institutions and then reviewed by seven other global experts, including one from the University of California.

As to the Nationals’ call for an “independent science quality assurance agency” for anyone concerned about scientific results, Australia already has one in the form of the Australian Research Integrity Committee (ARIC). Set up in February 2011 by the federal government, ARIC conducts reviews of institutional processes and has powers to target poor processes.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has argued recently, the publishing process in Australia still has room for error, specifically through the emergence of “predatory journals” that have flourished in the online space and reward quick, profitable or easy research with poor peer review processes.

But as STA’s CEO Kylie Walker told Crikey, the process works 99% of the time to ensure discoveries or theories are as close to correct as they can possibly be.

For the remaining 1%, the self-regulating nature of science means that “predatory” online journals are easily identifiable, and even in the “exceptionally rare” case that poor science is published in respectable journals — think the paper finding that Autism Spectrum Disorder was linked to the measles vaccine — the scientific method of experimentation means genuine errors are eventually caught and retracted by a much larger body of evidence.

“Every time there’s a piece of research, you can guarantee that there are people all over the world who are working to do the same experiment, to verify the same evidence and to extend the knowledge or build on it, or occasionally, to show that it’s wrong,” Walker says.

What about research that influences public policy?

According to Dr Lyndon Llewellyn of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, any research that stands to influence public policy faces further scrutiny.

“I’d be very surprised if a single paper was the single point of truth for any single decision based upon a body of work,” Llewellyn says. “I’d be really surprised if policymakers did not do their own reviews of the papers [or] reach out to the author and the organisations to get background information [or] even get some external party to review.”

For example, Queensland’s Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch tells Crikey that the state’s new run-off laws are based on a fairly massive body of evidence, including findings of a 2016 task force led by the former Queensland chief scientist; the 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement; the latest Water Quality Report Card (a joint report between the federal and Queensland governments); and even the federal government’s own Reef Outlook Report.

Much more likely, however, is political ideology influencing the reception of research. During the last federal election, the Coalition flaunted deeply-flawed modelling by Coalition-linked economist Brian Fischer that wasn’t so much peer reviewed as “given feedback” by one American economist.

As another example, think of Adani attempting to find the personal details of scientists criticising the company’s groundwater management plan.

Finally, the Coalition’s consistent public and institutional attacks on climate science invariably puts pressure on the profession.

“This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon, this happens from time to time in different countries around the world,” Walker says. “And we’re seeing similar challenges coming up in the United States recently. Even 10 years ago I remember the Italian government sued a number of scientists for underestimating the severity of an earthquake.”

“I think this trend, or these attempts, is deeply disturbing because they signal, on the part of the people making the attacks, an inability or unwillingness to engage with the truth.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey