Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Best Practice Science Is Open and Transparent

By Clinton Foster

Geoscience Australia’s Chief Scientist outlines the philosophy behind the organisation’s newly stated science principles.

We take for granted science outcomes like the GPS navigation functions in our smart phones, although few of us understand the science behind it. Science underpins everything we do in our modern society and yet the numbers studying science in schools, and in some disciplines at universities, are continuing to fall in Australia.

Science information is literally available on tap via the internet, but provides answers that are often many and sometimes contradictory. These may be without supporting evidence and untested, and are what I call “assertive science”.

The past century has been an age of assertive science in which the title “scientist”, a white lab coat and the use of jargon allowed assertions to be made, sometimes with dire consequences. In public, an assertive statement or the phrase “trust me, I’m a scientist” was commonly offered in support of a conclusion. Often they were made by an individual scientist presenting answers produced by a single research agency. That type of assertive science should, quite rightly, be unacceptable. But, paradoxically, it has persevered in our age of easy and rapid access to information.

There are two key issues: first, recognition that science actually underpins everything we do, and second, what is the evidence base supporting a particular conclusion? Both are often overlooked. Current assertive science is often without evidence, yet its outcomes or answers may be widely accepted in public.

There is a temporal symmetry to this type of science, both based on data access: too little data (20th century) and too much untested data (21st century). In both cases there is a lack of understanding or explanation of processes undertaken to gather the available data.

The scientific method is based on the principle of testing ideas or hypotheses through rigorous observing, recording and repeated testing of data, understanding its limitations, and by allowing the processes, findings and data to be independently reviewed. The caveat is that it is to the best of our current knowledge, and that research is ever ongoing to discover and understand the unknown.

In the tsunami of information available on any topic, researchers and the public need to be confident that conclusions used to inform community decisions are based on the best available data, and that concepts and results are tested and accessible to interested persons or groups. There is an Australian Code of the Responsible Conduct of Research, and it is within that context that Geoscience Australia has reaffirmed its principles for research activities.

The six principles are embedded in Geoscience Australia’s long-term strategic planning and day-to-day operations. They reflect the fact that our reputation for providing timely, relevant, accurate and trusted technical advice on geoscience and spatial matters that affect the nation is highly valued.

As science is the fundamental tool of the agency, we recognise that our science outputs must be evidence-based, testable and transparent. It is essential that these outputs are peer reviewed and communicated effectively, and our science programs are benchmarked and monitored to ensure sustainable capability.

This also requires a collaborative and cooperative approach within the agency, with external stakeholders and with other science agencies. Collaborative science is essential because of the complexity and interrelationship of parameters that must be considered to assess issues such as the impact of natural hazards on communities.

Data custodianship and access is also a key priority to ensure that the best geological and spatial data sets are acquired, maintained and made available to all interested stakeholders, and particularly collaborative science agencies.

We are confident that these principles provide a solid foundation for our continued contribution to Australia’s future well-being through the delivery of quality geoscience and spatial data and information.

Dr Foster is Chief Scientist of Geoscience Australia. The “Science Principles” document is available at http://www.ga.gov.au/about-us/corporate-documents/science-principles.html as a free download.