The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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A Letter to Vice-Chancellor Johnson

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Last week I sent a letter to Prof. Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (the school what I went to). The letter concerned his recent decision to circumvent the usual decision making processes and just throw university resources at a “consensus centre” set up for professional climate-change-water-muddier Dr Bjorn Lomborg at the bequest of our current government.

The Letter

Dear Professor Johnson,

I am deeply concerned with your recent decision to accept funding to house a policy centre specifically for Dr. Bjorn Lomborg at the University of Western Australia.

You are no doubt aware that to be an academic researcher of any sort in Australia is to be in a tenuous and thankless position. It is widely acknowledged that the scarcity of dedicated research funding, unreliability of funding allocation, and the overall lack of planning around research policy in Australia all mean that many promising early and mid-career researchers are simply denied the opportunity to pursue valuable and highly-regarded research. I count myself among them.

In this environment I would have hoped to see the upper levels of UWA governance add to calls to improve Australia’s research policy and the processes by which new and existing research is initiated and sustained.

Instead, you have arbitrarily dedicated UWA’s resources to court a single celebrity in a way that circumvents all mechanisms for academic integrity and merit. For the same amount of money involved, the government could instead fund four or five Future Fellowships.

Is Lomborg among the best contributors in his field? Is he better, at least, than the many researchers who are unable to pursue vital research due to lack of funding and job security? Most importantly, have the answers to these questions been determined through the same processes that every other researcher in Australia goes through to receive funding and support?

All that can be said is that for no discernible reason, a man who is ideologically aligned with the government of the day just happened to receive not only millions of dollars in funding but also the specious support of UWA. That anything other than money or political favour motivated this decision is impossible for you to claim with any semblance of accountability.

You have failed to realise that your past and future graduates are all also stakeholders in this decision, and you have shown no regard for how this lack of academic integrity has damaged our reputation.

Please, as a graduate of the University of Western Australia, I implore you to reconsider this arrangement.

Sincerely,

Jason Heeris
BSc(Hons), BE(Hons)

Extra Notes

While writing this letter I realised just how tricky it is to frame criticism of Lomborg’s appointment. For example, if you take the angle that UWA should not be handing out in-kind support on the basis of someone’s celebrity, you will probably hear that he’s well published, widely respected and even an adjunct professor (yes, professor, because you gave him that title).

But if you point out that he’s not actually a very good researcher, you’ll be met with, “Well he’s not a researcher! He’s an author/​facilitator/​policy developer/​etc!” Right.

This trickiness is no accident though — it is exactly what happens when you make a completely arbitrary decision outside the usual processes of accountability. It’s exactly why you do that. When you pledge support to someone who is not a researcher but does a convincing enough job impersonating one, you can claim one thing at one time, and something else at another. Both will seem true enough to defuse an argument, even if they don’t really hold up.

These kinds of contradictions and deniable positions permeate the whole arrangement. Sometimes it’s a legitimate research centre… but it’s only staffed by project and event managers. It’s an intellectual exercise with enough merit to attract prestigious experts… but UWA’s own experts weren’t asked about it. Lomborg’s consensus building process is a new enough paradigm that it can’t be judged by the standards of either a policy centre or a research facility — now there’s an alarm bell.

The plausible deniability of rigour, the false-balance “let’s welcome debate” rhetoric, and the focus on a single celebrity give this all the hallmarks of pseudoscience. It’s truly sad that UWA are going down this path.

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