Blog

Environment department tried to bury research that found huge underspend on Australian threatened species

Exclusive: Briefing note prepared for a meeting with government-funded scientists suggested they ‘don’t publish the paper’

Critically endangered Smoky Mouse

Critically endangered Smoky Mouse: research has found Australia was spending just a tenth of what the US dedicated to trying to recover endangered wildlife. Photograph: NSW government

The federal government tried to stop the publication of an academic paper that found it needed to drastically increase its spending on threatened Australian wildlife.

Internal documents released to Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show senior officials in the federal environment department spent months pressuring the scientists from the government-funded Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

The scientists had drafted a paper in 2019 that compared Australian threatened species funding with that in the US. They found Australia was spending just a tenth of what the US dedicated to trying to recover endangered wildlife.

The documents show that before a meeting with two of the hub’s scientists at the University of Melbourne the department drew up options, including “don’t publish the paper” or remove references to the government program.

Another option considered was publishing the paper under a different set of author names – something that could have qualified as academic misconduct.

The research, known as the Spending to Save paper, was ultimately published in the journal Conservation Letters in November 2019 after the researchers deleted references to the government program and agreed not to promote its findings in the media.

The environment department said in a statement on Friday, after this story was published, that: “We strongly reject any assertion that department officials sought to pressure researchers in relation to the non-publication or authorship of the paper.”

Don Driscoll, a professor at Deakin University who led a recent study that surveyed Australian scientists about pressures they face to change or not release their work, said the internal documents revealed a “disgraceful example of scientific suppression”.

Read more

“It’s really worrying because the public service is trying to hide important information about the state of our biodiversity from the public,” he said. “The public needs to know why our biodiversity is under threat. They need to know it’s being enormously under-funded.”

This week’s federal budget delivered only a marginal increase in funding for nature after years of spending cuts.

The Threatened Species Recovery Hub is one of six “hubs” funded through the federal government’s national environmental science program (NESP) from 2014 to 2021. Its researchers are drawn from 10 Australian universities.Advertisement

The “spending to save” paper found Australia was spending about $122m a year on endangered wildlife, about 10% of what was being spent in the US and about 15% of what was needed to prevent the extinction of species.

It was written when the environment minister, Sussan Ley, was new to the role and the government was under pressure about its record on threatened species, which was being scrutinised through a Senate inquiry and multiple media reports.

In June 2019, the hub notified the department it had written a paper on the subject and it had been accepted for publication. The email triggered a flurry of activity among senior officials, who raised concerns about the paper with the University of Melbourne’s Brendan Wintle.

When Wintle responded with a plan to “move forward in our aim of working with the department on this”, Beth Brunoro, a first assistant secretary, was dismissive. In an email to colleagues she rejected Wintle’s plan, saying there was a “fundamental difference of perspectives on the role of the hub”.

In another email an unnamed official wrote the research was “not helpful in providing any evidence base for policy development” suggesting it would have been better to ask how governments could target spending to achieve the best results.

Nicholas Post, another official, wrote to his colleagues that he had previously told his team in the department that they needed to think more “politically/strategically”.

In early July, Post told the threatened species commissioner Sally Box and another senior official that he and Brunoro, were meeting with Wintle “to remind him of the importance of focusing on science rather than policy matters”.

None of the correspondence suggests Ley or her office were aware of what was playing out in her department.

Tensions about the paper culminated with a meeting between Brunoro, Post and Box and Wintle and another of the paper’s authors, Martine Maron, in Melbourne in late August. In notes prepared ahead of the meeting, department officials again outlined their concerns, writing that the researchers’ “advocacy-type” approach could make them appear politically biased and undermine their credibility to provide unbiased science.Advertisement

The briefing note listed several options; withdraw the paper, publish the paper without the hub affiliation or change the author list so that it did not include scientists in the hub leadership team.

The brief noted the authors had already agreed the paper would not be published with the hub branding.

“Given we have now agreed with the hub that this paper is not a hub product, it is not really within our remit to instruct them not to publish it or to drastically change the authorship, but we may mutually arrive at this point through a discussion of how best to achieve their objectives,” they wrote.

Wintle declined to be interviewed by Guardian Australia.

Driscoll told Guardian Australia that by pressuring the researchers to alter the authorship of the paper the department was asking them to engage in academic misconduct because doing so would have breached Australian Research Council and the journal’s policies.

Maron said she was surprised to see the amount of correspondence and concern the paper had triggered within the department.

She said the decline of the country’s wildlife was widely documented and it was well-established that the amount of funding for threatened species was inadequate.

“This paper helps put a figure on that shortfall,” she said.

“We expect our governments to welcome robust, peer-reviewed science, regardless of what it reveals.”

The meeting notes say in addition to removing all government branding from the paper, the researchers ultimately agreed to distribute it only within the academic community, with no wider promotion through media.

Last year scientists from the hub, with 16 partner universities and backing from 100 organisations, applied for the next round of funding through the national environmental science program and were unsuccessful.

The environment department withheld more than 30 documents from Guardian Australia and those it did supply were heavily redacted. The department did not directly answer several specific questions.

A spokesperson said the paper was not part of the hub’s agreed project plan.

“The researchers agreed to remove mentions of the research’s affiliation with the program, as was appropriate, and proceeded to publish the research through the other channels available to them,” the spokesperson said.

Scientist David Lindenmayer, another author on the paper, said independent scientific communication was important and past ministers, including Robert Hill and Greg Hunt, had used research as an opportunity to put proposals to cabinet.

“It’s really important to tell things as they are, not to sanitise things,” he said. “I’m perplexed by the concern, it seems at odds with what the department of environment is trying to do to protect the environment.”

This story was amended on 14 May 2021 to clarify that Nicholas Post told his colleagues, not scientists, that they needed to think more “politically/strategically”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *