Most of the literature on advocacy by scientists focuses on the issue of credibility and the conflicting goals of science and advocacy. In particular, scientists claim they are reluctant to speak out on policy issues because of fears that it will undermine their credibility as scientists and tarnish the image of science as objective and impartial. However, there are two related issues that are rarely discussed. One is the fact that most scientists are dependent on government agencies or corporations for either their employment or their funding and may fear repercussions for speaking out. The second is that scientists are frequently used by these same organisations to advocate on their behalf, despite supposed issues of credibility and conflicts with the norms of science. This situation creates an imbalance in public debates whereby the establishment position (that of government or corporations) has plenty of scientific support but the opposition may not. Non-scientists on the opposition side have less credibility than the establishment scientists. A case study of facial tumours in Tasmanian devils provides an illustration of a situation of imbalance in the public debate because so much of the scientific community in Tasmania is dependent on government funding or employment.
For the purposes of this paper advocacy entails advising or influencing the opinions of members of the public, managers or policy makers, particularly with a view to guiding or modifying management and/or policy decisions and outcomes (Garrard, Fidler et al. 2016; Steneck 2011).
Scientists are often reluctant to become advocates. The reasons they give for this include:
The reason seldom given in the literature but more compelling is that advocacy by scientists may be against the interests of their funding sources or employers. This will be discussed later in this paper.
Many scientists believe there is a conflict between advocacy and science because science is objective and neutral—or at least its authority depends on the perception that it is—and advocacy is necessarily partisan, value-based and political (Garrard, Fidler et al. 2016; Nelson and Vucetich 2009; Steneck 2011). These scientists think they have a duty to provide ‘objective scientific information to managers and policymakers’, and perhaps even to interpret that information, but it is then up to the managers to debate options and come to decisions about which are best (Lach, List et al. 2003; Nelson and Vucetich 2009). When scientists become advocates, they show themselves to have values and views and passions, rather than being disinterested seekers of truth, and therefore their ‘professional responsibility and trustworthiness’ as scientists might be questioned (Aron, Burke et al. 2002).
However, there is a whole body of literature that demonstrates that science is not value-free; ‘ethical values such as regard for human and animal welfare shape research agendas and govern scientific practice’ (Garrard, Fidler et al. 2016). Conservation scientists, for example, may want to present themselves as disinterested observers of reality but most are committed to conservation (Horton, Peterson et al. 2015). They, like everyone else, have values and these shape their choice of career, their choice of research project, the way they go about their research, and the way they interpret their results (Nelson and Vucetich 2009).
Nevertheless, scientists are required to be balanced and honest in their work, whereas advocates aim to be effective (Steneck 2011) and tend to be selective in the data they cite to support their arguments (Runkle 2012). Some advocates may even be tempted to distort the ‘facts’ to support their views. Personal opinions can become confused with scientific findings (Runkle 2012). Scientists may advocate ‘in scientific fields removed from their own’ (Aron, Burke et al. 2002).
Consequently advocacy can be associated with ‘overly inflated claims’ and other distortions, even though this is not necessarily the case (Nelson and Vucetich 2009). If scientists are seen to ‘lower their scientific standards in support of popular causes—while presenting themselves as scientists— science itself can be diminished’ (Aron, Burke et al. 2002). To counter this problem various organisations and individuals have provided guidance for scientists on ways to advocate that are balanced and honest (Runkle 2012).
Compounding the perceived conflict between the nature of science and advocacy, scientists say they are concerned that their credibility as scientists will be compromised if they become advocates and they will be ‘challenged by colleagues, politicians, and representatives of interest groups’ (Lach, List et al. 2003; Nelson and Vucetich 2009). Ironically, it is this scientific credibility that would give their advocacy more influence than non-scientific advocates (Lach, List et al. 2003). Scientists also fear that they lose credibility if they are seen to have a political agenda; when they provide ‘objective’ scientific information it may be ignored by policy-makers as biased (Lach, List et al. 2003; Scott and Rachlow 2010).
However, scientists judge each other’s credibility, they say, by ‘the quality of methods used, data generated, and reputation in a specialization’. Non-scientists, to the extent that they judge scientific credibility, base it on the ‘scientist’s disciplinary reputation’, their experience and perceived knowledge, and their ‘ability to deliver research results that managers and others can use’ (Lach, List et al. 2003).
Advocacy does not necessarily undermine a scientist’s credibility, as can be seen by several high profile outspoken scientists, such as E. O. Wilson, Stuart Pimm, and Jane Lubchenco. In fact most scientists who speak out in the public interest have improved public reputations (Nelson and Vucetich 2009). It is scientists who are suspected of scientific fraud, distorting the truth, making unfounded or unsubstantiated statements, or taking ridiculous positions, who lose credibility.
The real reason why many scientists are reluctant to become advocates, and which is seldom cited in surveys or in the literature, is that they are dependent on government agencies or private corporations for their employment or their funding and fear the repercussions of speaking out.
Sometimes employers are explicit in their desire to prevent scientists from taking part in public advocacy. CSIRO spokesperson Huw Morgan (2017) stated: ‘CSIRO has a long-standing policy that staff should not advocate, defend or publicly canvass the merits of government or opposition policies, including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or local or foreign governments…’
In addition, Morgan (2017) stated that the CSIRO Publications Policy prohibits staff from making submissions on government policy ‘in a private capacity [emphasis added] that relates to staff member's area of professional expertise, reputation and employment with CSIRO.’ This is because, Morgan argued, it ‘could potentially be perceived as compromising their capacity, as employees, to fulfill their duties in an unbiased manner, or compromising public confidence in CSIRO as a trusted advisor’.
At the start of the Trump presidency, the administration ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials and others from the Department of Health and Human Services not to speak out publicly. The ban included ‘the issuing of press releases, blogs, messages on Twitter and Facebook posts, according to information leaked to several media organisations’ (Johnston 2017).
Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), claims that many federal government scientists in Canada have been ‘muzzled’ (Gatehouse 2013). In 2006 the prime minister, Stephen Harper, introduced strict guidelines restricting the public communications of government scientists. Government scientists had to get approval from the minister’s office before speaking to the media, and often had to provide potential questions and answers before approval was given, often too late for the journalist’s deadline. (Manasan 2015)
According to internal Environment Canada documents, obtained by Climate Change Network Canada via Access to Information, the amount of attention the media paid to federal climate change research dropped precipitously—80 per cent fewer stories—once the procedures for gaining access to government scientists were tightened during Harper’s first mandate. In the first nine months of 2008, for example, the department’s four leading researchers were quoted in a total of 12 newspaper stories, versus 99 over the same period the year before. (Gatehouse 2013)
Even scientists working in universities are increasingly dependent on corporate or government funding of their research as direct funding of university research has been shrinking (Rampton and Stauber 2001). Reductions in university funding has led to ‘increasing solicitation of outside sources of funds by universities’ (Mintz, Savage et al. 2010).
Research contracts, with government and private corporations, may include clauses that prevent public disclosure of the research or discussion of it and permit the funders to modify or even suppress findings. ‘A 2006 survey of health scientists in Australia shows such clauses have been invoked by our federal and state governments to sanitise the reporting of “failings in health services ... the health status of a vulnerable group ... or ... harm in the environment”… And gagging clauses are not unique to health’ (Kypri 2015). Scientists subject to such clauses would be prevented from advocating in favour of policy changes based on their findings.
In 2016 The Guardian reported that UK ‘researchers who receive government grants will be banned, as of 1 May, from using the results of their work to lobby for changes in laws or regulations’. Examples of those affected included ‘ecologists who discover new planning laws are harming wildlife’. (McKie 2016)
A survey of 384 New Zealand scientists found that 40 percent of them ‘felt gagged because of management policy or concern over losing funding’. Half of them worked for Crown research institutes (‘Forty Percent of Scientists Feel Gagged’ 2014). These institutes, although publicly owned, also depend on private funds ‘and as a result many have very strict media policies -- much like the rules you would find in private companies -- that actively filter what scientists can say to journalists’ (Morton 2016).
Whilst government, university and corporate scientists are unable to advocate on policies in a way that conflicts with their employer’s or funder’s interests, there is no such inhibition on advocating in a way that supports those interests. In fact, scientists are frequently used by these same organisations to advocate on their behalf, despite supposed issues of credibility and conflicts with the norms of science.
Kypros Kypri (2015), a Professor of Public Health at the University of Newcastle, points out that governments are increasingly managing ‘the information environment’ for public relations purposes and as a result, scientific research ‘seems to have become more a means of providing support for a policy position than for generating knowledge to guide policy’.
Scientists also perform a variety of tasks for corporate-funded advocacy groups and think tanks including writing documents such as policy studies, books, articles, opinion pieces, testifying at government hearings, giving speeches, for example, at forums, conferences and sponsored events, and providing credibility and legitimacy through fellowships, membership of advisory panels and editorships (McCright and Dunlap 2003). In return the scientists receive financial and other resources, institutional positions, affiliations for their CV, and much increased public exposure for their views.
The increasing trend for corporations to use friendly scientists as their mouthpieces has distorted media reporting on environmental issues since industry-funded scientists are often treated as independent scientists. Because of the myth of scientific objectivity, journalists tend to have an uncritical trust in scientists and prefer them as sources of expertise ahead of non-scientists.
The problem is compounded by the mainstream media failing to recognise the phenomenon of front groups. Industry-funded corporate front groups use independent scientists to promote corporate causes. Chemical and nuclear industry front groups, with scientific sounding names, publish pamphlets that are ‘peer reviewed’ by industry scientists rather than papers in established academic journals (Beder 2002).
The use of front groups enable corporations to advocate in the corporate interest behind a cover of community concern; to oppose environmental regulations and to advocate for policies that enhance corporate profitability (Beder 2002). Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, advised companies: ‘Put your words in someone else’s mouth... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are’ (Rose 1991).
Pseudo-scientific front groups can cast doubt on the severity of the problems associated with environmental deterioration and create confusion by magnifying uncertainties and showing that a few scientists dispute the claims of the majority of the scientific community. For example, a front group called Sense about Science, funded by various corporations, pharmaceutical associations, and biotech organisations, argued that claims of the dangers of genetic engineering and synthetic chemicals are exaggerated (Beder 2002).
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is one of many industry-funded corporate front groups that allow industry-funded experts to pose as independent scientists to promote corporate causes. It has received funds from food processing and beverage corporations including Burger King, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, NutraSweet, Nestle USA as well as chemical, oil and pharmaceutical companies such as Monsanto, Dow USA, Exxon, Union Carbide and others (Beder 2002).
The Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, the last surviving carnivorous marsupial, is found only in Tasmania. Tasmania is economically dependent on its natural resources, particularly forests. Ongoing disputes exist between those who wish to exploit its natural resources (industry and government) and those who wish to protect them (activists and citizens). A particular focus of disputes is the logging of old-growth forests. The introduction and rapid expansion of plantation forests is regarded by federal and state governments as a solution (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry 2002). However, eucalypt plantation seeds and seedlings are protected with the use of pesticides that pose risks to non-target species.
The focus of this case study is on the Tasmanian devil and devil facial cancer, which is threatening the survival of the species in the wild. Devils are mainly scavengers but are also known as ambush predators (Owen and Pemberton 2005). They prefer open eucalypt forests, woodlands and coastal scrub where dense populations of their prey – wallaby, wombats and possums – are found (Pyers 2005). Although they forage for food individually, several devils may feed simultaneously on a large carcass (Owen and Pemberton 2005).
The Tasmanian devil facial cancer was first observed in 1996 in the north-east of the state. It is now termed Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). In 2005 the Tasmanian government Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) recognized the significant threat the cancer posed to the survival of the Tasmanian devil and identified key areas for investigation including; the identification of the aetiology (cause) of the disease, transmission trials for the passage of tumour cells to determine whether the cancer was transmissible, and investigation of whether toxins or poisons were the cause of the chromosome instability in DFTD (Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment 2005a).
DFTD results in subcutaneous ulcers and death occurs within five months because of a breakdown in bodily functions or starvation (Loh 2006). Devils also suffer from two other cancers, which are yet to be fully documented, a mammary cancer in female devils and a skin lymphoma (Warren 2013). The devil is listed as endangered under the Australian government Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Tasmanian government relies on the forestry industry for jobs and the economic growth of the state. DPIPWE’s role is to both ‘support primary industry development’ and ‘guide and support the use and management of Tasmania's land and water resources’. This means its responsibilities include the protection of wildlife and overseeing the use of chemicals in forestry and agriculture (Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment 2017). We believe that if chemicals used to promote forestry and agriculture have the potential to harm wildlife, this would give rise to a conflict of interest.
The same government department is responsible for wildlife research, including the Mt Pleasant Animal Health Laboratory where devil research is undertaken, and oversees the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP), which raises funds from public donations for research into DFTD. The STDP Communications Strategy controls the distribution of information, including media management, about the research program (Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment 2010). We argue that the department hasn’t properly investigated links between forestry chemicals and devil cancers and that the allograft hypothesis has been adopted as scientific fact without sufficient evidence.
Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain causation and spread of DFTD in Tasmanian devils. None have been proven and all have anomalies that need explaining. Each implies different policy approaches. They include:
However, only the allograft hypothesis has been actively pursued and had research funds allocated to it and that is the one that suits the preferred policies of the Tasmanian government. This paper will focus on that hypothesis in order to show the role of the employer and funding sources in scientific advocacy.
The other hypothesis covered in this paper is that chemicals in the environment, which are used for forestry, have a role in causation and/or spread of DFTD either directly or by lowering the devil’s immunity. This hypothesis was dominant prior to the discovery of the allograft theory and fits with the theme of this issue of the journal, conservation advocacy.
The reason that other competing hypotheses and the evidence for them are not covered is that this is not a literature review of articles on DFTD, nor a scientific study of its causes. Rather it is an article about scientific advocacy using examples to support the argument that scientists who are dependent on government agencies (or corporations) for either their employment or their funding may fear repercussions for speaking out and this may create an imbalance in public debates.
We are not arguing that the reasons why alternative hypotheses have not been pursued in this case is because of the imbalance in the public debate. Rather we are claiming that the lack of availability of funding to research alternative hypotheses, in this case the hypotheses that chemicals are playing a major role, is the main reason that it has not been properly investigated. Scientific advocacy would seek to change that through public debate.
There are many reasons why scientists may choose to explore one hypothesis rather than another. Clearly some hypotheses have less scientific credibility than others. For example, the hypothesis about sun exposure has less credibility because devils in the wild are nocturnal (Croft 2003).
Some hypotheses may be more amenable to some scientific specialities; geneticists will be attracted to the allograft hypothesis. However geneticists still require funding to do the research they prefer. It might be argued that because the allograft hypothesis is so unique, it attracts more and therefore more research funding. Nevertheless, this paper argues that funding support and employment are more important factors in setting research directions.
In 2006 Pearse and Swift (2006), whilst working at the DPIPWE Mt Pleasant laboratory, published a brief communication in Nature that introduced the hypothesis that the devil’s facial tumour was transmissible—an allograft. The hypothesis was based on the observation that all the devil tumours from a variety of animals had the same chromosomes and the authors concluded from this that the tumour cells were clones passed from devil to devil by biting.
The only study to test whether the cancer is actually transmissible from one devil to another was undertaken by Stephen Pyecroft while he was working at the DPIPWE Mt Pleasant laboratory. The findings of this study have not been published in a peer reviewed journal. The only reference to the research is to be found in an abstract published in a handbook produced for a forum on devil research. In the abstract Pycroft (2007) claimed: ‘Trial animals injected with cell lines and receiving surgical implants of tumour tissue developed actively developing cancers at the treatment sites, to a variable degree’. No further details were supplied and no further publication of the results of the trial have been made public in the ten years since then. Plans for subsequent trials do not appear to have led to any further research actually being undertaken.
This means the allograft hypothesis has not been tested in a way that opens it up to peer review by scientists outside DPIPWE. Nevertheless, the allograft hypothesis has been accepted as scientific fact by most of the Tasmanian scientific community and conveyed as fact to the broader community. Subsequent studies by Tasmanian devil research scientists have been based on the assumption that the allograft hypothesis has been proven.
This is not the way science is supposed to be done. Scientific claims should be subject to scepticism, experiment and the challenges of rival hypotheses. According to Edward O Wilson (1998) ‘[w]ithout this vulnerability, they will not be accorded the status of scientific theories’. The principles that distinguish science from pseudoscience are replication, simplicity, prediction, accuracy and consistency. Replication in science means repeating the same experiment, preferably by independent investigation, where the findings are interpreted and confirmed or disproved. This is necessary for scientific verification.
The problem is that most, if not all the scientists in Tasmania who are capable of this verification or falsification are either employed by the DPIPWE or receive funding directly from the Tasmanian government or via the Save The Devil Program (STDP). In addition to this, the Tasmanian government also controls who can obtain devil samples for research. Elizabeth Murchison, who received a $US25,000 grant to study the devil cancer, has described her own difficulties obtaining devil samples (Bevilaqua 2006). In addition she says: ‘I have heard that other scientists from well-known labs both in Australia and overseas have also proposed collaborations on the devil tumour and have been denied access to any materials.’ (Quoted in Bevilaqua 2006).
There appear to be no independent advocates for the scientific process to be carried out properly and non-scientists lack the expertise in the field to be taken seriously. Those who do speak out are either ignored or suffer repudiation and reprisals (see below).
Since the expansion of the plantations in the 1980s Tasmania has experienced pesticide contamination of its waterways (Davies, Cook and Barton 1994). In 2004 marine ecologist Marcus Scammell (2004) and physician Alison Bleaney investigated oyster health problems and the mass death of oysters and native species in the Georges Bay on the east coast of Tasmania. Their report identified a correlation in time and space between the oyster abnormalities, devil cancers and the use of chemicals.
In 2006, the River Catchment Water Quality Initiative (RCWQI) was established to investigate continued pesticide contamination of surface, drinking and ground water in Tasmania. It relied on DPIPWE pesticide monitoring which identified pesticides in waterways, albeit below the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment 2005b). The RCWQI released its final report in 2009 and monitoring of waterways has since ceased (Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2009).
In 2007 Marvanack (2007), a CSIRO expert in applying geographic information systems (GIS), reported DFTD appears to ‘have broken out spontaneously’ in three separate locations ‘rather than moved in from nearby’ as might have been expected if the disease was contagious. A plantation chemical cause for the tumours was also supported by the fact that in 2007 the DFTD had not spread to the west of Tasmania where there were no plantations except in the most northern part where the plantations were younger (see maps in supplementary material).
This correlation between DFTD and plantations has anomalies. For example, the first documented case of DFTD was in a devil photographed in Mount William National Park where there are no plantations. However, the Park is surrounded by plantations and devils have a range of up to 50km (McCallum and Jones 2006) so this devil may well have been exposed to chemicals in a plantation. Moreover, chemicals can travel away from plantations via spray drift or waterways.
In 2007 the hypothesis that environmental toxins may have played a part in the devil cancer, an early line of inquiry proposed by the DPIPWE, was tested on 8 diseased devils and 8 non-diseased devils, but only with a limited number of chemicals. The pilot study found residues of chemicals PBBs (flame retardants) and PBDEs in devil tissue (Vetter et al. 2008). PBBs have been shown to cause cancer in rats and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that PBBs are possibly carcinogenic to humans (US Environmental Protection Agency 2010).
No further toxicology studies have been undertaken in the last decade, whilst numerous calls for more research have been ignored. These include the initial DPIPWE Report, Pearse and Swift (2006), Vetter et al (2008), Moore (2008) and Ross (2008). Also, on a number of occasions McGlashan, Obendorf and Harington drew attention to the need to consider the role of toxins in the devils’ environment (e.g. Harington and McGlashan 2005: McGlashan, Obendorf and Harington 2007). A paper titled ‘Research priorities in the Tasmanian devil facial tumour debate’ in the European Journal of Oncology in 2008 described an ‘all but neglected’ area of research stating ‘that the genesis and effective transmission of this disease was the fateful culmination in a cascade of anthropogenic land-use activities and can more specifically be linked to a toxin-related aetiology occurring in a wild carrion-feeding marsupial…’ (Obendorf and McGlashan 2008)
The use of particular chemicals, such as 1080, have declined in the last decade but they have been replaced by other chemicals. Also, although the lifetime of devils in the wild is short, some of these chemicals, such as atrazine, may persist for years in the environment (Boey and Cooper 1996; Radcliffe 2002).
A couple of scientific peer-reviewed papers have identified anomalies with the original allograft hypothesis. The first found tumours in 5 male devils that, although they were “grossly indistinguishable” from the other devil tumours examined, had “no detectable cytogenic similarity” to them and carried a Y chromosome (Pye et al. 2016). This contradicted the original hypothesis in Nature that was based onall tumour cells isolated from affected devils being identical and the sex chromosomes missing (Pearse and Swift 2006). The authors, part of the Save The Devil Program (STDP), explained this anomaly by adjusting the theory to allow for two distinct devil transmissible cancers, DFT1 and DFT2 (Pye et al. 2016).
Cui et al (2016) amplified and sequenced the devil sex-determining region Y (SRY) gene, and concluded, in the peer-reviewed journal Chemical and Biophysical Research Communications, that, contrary to the allograft hypothesis, which assumed that all the tumours originated in, and were transmitted from, one female devil, DFDT tumours in male devils had male chromosomes and originated in their hosts. Referring to the Pye study, Cui et al concluded:
the cytogenetic results showed that all the DFTD2 tumours containing a Y chro- mosome were from five male devils (isolated in 2014 and 2015) whereas all the DFTD1 tumours from four female devils (isolated in 2015) did not contain a Y chromosome, clearly indicating that all the DFTD tumours isolated in 2014 and 2015 were induced in their own hosts. (Cui et al 2016)
The allograft theory for DFDT was thus emphatically rejected by Xianlan Cui, Manager of Wildlife Disease Research, who was in charge of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) research in DPIPWE. STDP researchers have ignored the publication of these anomalies in their subsequent papers (e.g. Wells et al. 2017). Cui did not speak publicly about the research but his refutation of the allograft hypothesis received further exposure in the TasmanianTimes (Warren 2016). Cui (personal communication 2017) was asked to retract his paper by the DPIPWE but he did not. He no longer works for DPIPWE but the reasons for his departure are confidential.
Gilbert and Mulkay studied how scientists view their own research and those with whom they disagreed (cited in Martin 2014). They found scientists that support the established view, in this case that DFTD is an allograft, assume that their studies are objective and factual. Challengers to the established view are sometimes dismissed because their research is considered to be based on personal agendas, biases, or conflict of interest.
In the DFTD case there have been few dissenting voices or advocates on behalf of the devils. One scientist who spoke out to protect the devils’ habitat was Colette Harmsen, who joined the STDP as a veterinary officer in 2006. When she spoke at a 2009 Council meeting, in a private capacity, stating that a proposed road posed specific threats to the devil she was publicly rebuked by the then Minister for DPIPWE. He said that her ‘logic was flawed’ and that her views did not represent the government’s position (‘Tarkine road no danger to devils’ 2009). In a demonstration of support for her claims, following the attempt to gag her from public debate, David Obendorf, veterinary pathologist and thirty-three other highly respected scientists felt compelled to sign an open letter to the Premier of Tasmania warning the Minister not to censor a ‘dedicated and experienced wildlife veterinarian’ (Open letter 2009).
In 2012 Harmsen emailed the Threatened Species Section of DPIPWE expressing her surprise to find that there was no formal Tasmanian Devil Recovery Plan under the Commonwealth EPBC Act 1999. A 2010 Draft Recovery Plan had been developed but it was neither endorsed nor binding. There was effectively no protection for devils from logging practices.
Harmsen (2012) also wrote to the then Federal Environment Minister voicing her concern about the impact a proposed mining venture in the north-west of the state would have on the devils. She informed the Minister that her position with STDP was threatened and that she had been ‘warned against speaking out against primary industries such as forestry and mining’. Harmsen no longer works as a veterinary officer for the DPIPWE.
When Warren and Martin (2014) published an article in The Conversation based on Warren’s (2013) doctoral thesis examining the science and politics of DFTD in Tasmania and arguing a chemical cause had not been sufficiently explored, they came under attack in the comments section and by email for having the presumption, as non-biologists, to challenge the allograft science.
ANU’s Professor Jenny Graves, who has published with the STDP, argued that Warren’s article ‘flies in the face of good science’ including ‘observations of transfer of cancer cells from affected to unaffected devils’ (comments in Warren and Martin 2014). No such observations had been documented in any scientific journal.
The Tasmanian Devil case demonstrates a situation where almost all the advocacy by scientists supports the allograft hypothesis and thereby indirectly supports the government policy of continued forestry with minimal regulation of chemicals.
Although chemicals have not been scientifically proven to be the cause of DFTD, neither has the allograft hypothesis. It is true that scientific theories cannot be proven, but the research necessary to confirm the allograft hypothesis, as outlined in the original communication in Nature (Pearse and Swift 2006), has not been carried out, yet subsequent DFTD research has been built on the assumption that it has. At the same time research into the chemical hypothesis, as recommended in many earlier studies (Pearse and Swift 2006; Vetter et al 2008; Harington and McGlashan 2005: McGlashan, Obendorf and Harington 2007), has ceased as a result of adherence to the allograft hypothesis.
Because Tasmanian scientists are dependent on government-controlled funding or employment, few may be willing to advocate either for research into alternative hypotheses for causation of devil disease, such as chemicals, or for limitations on the use of forestry chemicals to protect the devils or other native wildlife.
If research funding flows to those working on the allograft theory, then employee scientists may not question it because they feel their jobs are at risk. Those employees who have spoken up against department policy or publicly disputed the allograft theory no longer work for the department, although their reasons for leaving may not be related to their views.
Non-scientists who suggest that the Tasmanian government is influencing the direction of scientific research are accused of being proponents of a conspiracy theory (as referees for this paper did when it was submitted to Pacific Conservation Biology for publication).
When scientists are dependent on government agencies or corporations for either their employment or their funding they may fear repercussions for speaking out. In contrast, scientists are frequently used by these same organisations to advocate on their behalf, despite supposed issues of credibility and conflicts with the norms of science. This situation creates an imbalance in public debates whereby the establishment position (that of government or corporations) has plenty of scientific support but the opposition may not. Non-scientists on the opposition side have less credibility than the establishment scientists.
The protection of native wildlife species depends on scientists acting as advocates. Scientists hold an esteemed position in society as authorities with credibility and knowledge and it is incumbent upon them to advocate when necessary in the interests of the wider community. Excuses such as the loss of scientific credibility and the conflict between ‘objective’ science and partisan advocacy cannot be taken seriously when they only apply to one side of the debate. When the scientists involved are afraid to speak out then outside scientists need to become advocates.
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This article was submitted in 2017 to a special issue of a scientific journal on scientists and advocacy. However it seems the editors found it was too controversial to contend that a government department influenced the direction of science and precluded full investigation of the role of forestry chemicals in causing the devil facial tumour disease.