Undermining science undermines us all

August 18, 2023
Academy President Professor Chennupati Jagadish.

Australian science enjoys the overwhelming confidence of the public, but this is at risk from those who seek to twist the truth to suit their agenda.

A 3M/Ipsos poll of more than 1,000 Australians published recently found 92% say that science can help us solve the problems of tomorrow and 88% see the connection between science and its role in improving their lives.

The Australian Academy of Science thanks the Australian public for their confidence and trust in science.

It is important for the Academy—whose fellowship is a rigorously selected group from amongst Australia’s top scientists—and all our Australian scientists, to know that the public has such confidence in what they do.

The Academy also acknowledges that confidence in science is earned and cannot be taken for granted. 

Building science-based knowledge is one of the great achievements of humankind. What we know has evolved over millennia with each generation of scientists building on what has gone before.

Perhaps the 88% of Australians surveyed who see positive benefits to their lives can imagine what life would be like without science and its application—a life without vaccines, no sanitation, no refrigeration, no smart phones, no comfortable dentistry, and no weather forecasting.

In a world in which everybody can be a (public) sceptic but not everybody can be an expert, it is more important than ever that science is explained openly, in language that is accessible, and that the public can readily find sources of information that can be trusted—dispassionate, rational, expert.

It is easy to sow doubt—to take sentences from here and there in email streams and compare early thinking with later conclusions—and presume any change is due to some unspecified pressure rather than a change in the weight or direction of evidence, or even argument.

Such tactics are not new. We have witnessed the seeding and dissemination of uncertainty throughout the years—to postpone the regulation of tobacco consumption, to continue the use of lead in petrol, to obstruct vaccination during the ongoing pandemic, or to prevent action on climate change to list a few.

The current level of discourse around science, in Australia and the world, in relation to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is another contemporary example. It reflects a worrying pattern of deliberate undermining of public trust in science at a time when policymakers need to inform their decisions with rigorously gathered evidence, rather than in response to conspiracy and fearmongering.

As a society we must hold scientists to the highest of standards. 

Scientists and scientific organisations have a responsibility to conduct and communicate their research with integrity, respect, fairness, transparency, and trustworthiness and to consider the implications of new knowledge and its applications for society. Integrity and ethics in research are critical for maintaining excellence and public trust in science. 

What every member of the public must be able to expect from our scientists is the application of a rigorous scientific process of inquiry so that the best available knowledge can inform our decisions. This means fostering better public understanding of how science works and how it allows us to build knowledge over time.

Science is a system of knowledge: knowledge about the physical and natural world, knowledge gained through observation and experimentation, and knowledge organised systematically. It is knowledge gained and repeatedly tested using the scientific method, commonly involving a hypothesis that can be tested and changed as evidence builds, or a question that can be answered.

Science-based knowledge is subject to discussion, debate, further examination, and it is reviewed time and time again, especially as new information becomes available.

This rigorous and documented process of testing, contesting, and reviewing can give us all confidence in the state of knowledge at a particular time.

This means that conclusions we draw can, will and must change as evidence builds; as will public policy responses.

That is why practising and upholding scientific principles and rigorous process is an important responsibility of all scientists.

The Australian Academy of Science’s support for science, underpinned by rigorous processes, is unequivocal.

Science relies on high-quality journalism to communicate discoveries that impacts our lives. And that is why we must be concerned when journalism and other sources seek to mislead, distort and obfuscate scientific evidence and in doing so undermine public trust in science.

It is a dangerous trend and must be called out. As a national academy whose remit is to uphold standards of excellence in science, we will call out behaviour that serves no good purpose and that harms the essential underpinnings of a stable, safe and civil society that relies on evidence-informed decision making. 

It is up to all those who value the importance of knowledge as a public good to take a stand in the face of those who would assault it. Indeed, the public is aware: 93% of Australians surveyed believe positive outcomes can be achieved if people stand up for and defend science; 92% want business to take action to defend science.

We urge for a better comprehension of the scientific process, that not only serves us well in the every day, but is critical to assist us navigate global challenges and the increasingly complex geopolitical world we all live in.

Efforts to undermine science, undermine us all. And the survey of Australians shows they know that.


Professor Chennupati Jagadish AC PresAA FREng FTSE

Australian Academy of Science

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