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Science = Access, leverage, credibility…

February 17, 2010

Recent climate science scandals have raised the issue of access to, and ownership of science. At first, this was centered on access to data, and the tendency of some scientists to snub Freedom of Information Requests from skeptics.

But now we’re starting to see discussion of a different kind of access. Bjorn Lomborg offered an example today:

This month, the Indian government reacted to the revelations about the baseless nature of the glacier claim by announcing plans to establish what amounts to its own Indian IPCC to assess the impact of global warming. India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh declared: “There is a fine line between climate science and climate evangelism. I am for climate science.”

This move highlights an important reality in political debates involving science: science can serve as political capital. Maintaining a research program in climate science helps governments to influence debates, while adding to the credibility and legitimacy of what they say in those debates. We might like to think of science as an objective activity that could be carried out anywhere. But it matters very much where science is done, and who can take ownership of its results. This was reflected by outrage at the under-representation of developing world scientists in earlier rounds of the IPCC.

India is certainly not the first country to recognize that doing your own science leads to political leverage.

It is a major argument behind funding for the Australian Climate Change Science Program. The 2004-2008 research plan listed as a key objective:

maintain world-class expertise to ensure Australia’s key science questions are answered and influence the international understanding of climate change science.

It is no coincidence that Australia’s major climate modeling effort is named “ACCESS.” As the current climate change science framework notes:

Australia’s global contribution to climate change science has returned significant benefits through access to international knowledge. For example, our investment facilitated international collaboration on the development of ACCESS, enabling Australian scientists to focus our efforts where we have specific national interests and a comparative advantage.

The framework also appeals to a sense of national pride, noting that Australia’s involvement in international science programs raises the country’s standing.

Governments recognize that scientific capacity and scientific results are tools for engaging in negotiations.

What does this mean for the IPCC?  If governments do not feel they have access to IPCC results, its credibility is in danger. But perhaps even more importantly, if they feel their own voice (in the form of scientific input)  is unlikely to be taken seriously by the supposedly inclusive and comprehensive international body, they may just go their own way. This would be seriously damaging.

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