'Soft Censorship' Over Climate Change?

Australian university's decision to forgo federal funding for policy center over opposition to a researcher's views on climate change prompts concern about state of academic freedom and exchange of ideas.

May 13, 2015
Bjorn Lomborg

An Australian university's decision to forgo a federally financed research center because of its links to a controversial Danish researcher has prompted a firestorm of criticism and accusations that Australian academe supports “soft censorship” over academic freedom.

The University of Western Australia, in Perth, last month trumpeted the creation of the Australian Consensus Center in its business school. The center, in conjunction with the Copenhagen Consensus Center, was to focus on “applying an economic lens to proposals to achieve good for Australia, the region and the world, prioritizing those initiatives which produce the most social value per dollar spent.” The Australian government planned to provide $4 million Australian ($3.2 million U.S.) out of the total $13 million Australian total cost.

But in the weeks since the announcement, critics inside and outside the university blasted the proposed center's links to Bjorn Lomborg, who is perhaps best known for his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Politicians on Australia's liberal wing, staff members at the university and academics at other Australian institutions joined the fray. More than 6,000 people signed a Change.org petition seeking to “turn away Bjorn Lomborg's anti-climate science institute funding.”

In a statement of “deep regret” on the university’s website late last week, Western Australia's vice chancellor, Paul Johnson, said he believed the center would deliver robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice, and that the involvement of Lomborg was appropriate.

“Despite all this, there remains strong opposition to the center. Whilst I respect the right of staff to express their views on this matter, as all universities should be places for open and honest sharing and discussion of ideas, in this case, it has placed the university in a difficult position,” he said.

“Therefore, it is with great regret and disappointment that I have formed the view that the events of the past few weeks place the center in an untenable position as it lacks the support needed across the university and the broader academic community to meet its contractual obligations and deliver value for money for Australian taxpayers.”

In an interview with The Australian Monday, Johnson said many academics felt that “working with the Copenhagen Consensus Center raises issues of academic integrity, so we are not prepared to work with it. That I suppose you might say is an issue of academic freedom. There is no way I can force anyone in this univer­sity to do any particular sort of research. So I had to take a pragmatic decision. Can I deliver value for money to the Australian taxpayer for this $4 million? And I took the view, no, I cannot.”

He added: “It was clear that if we couldn’t get broad support across the Australian academic community, both in UWA and outside, then we were weren’t going to be able put together a broad network of people who would be needed to undertake the work.”

Officials of Australia's government and advocates for free speech condemned the university's decision.

Tim Wilson, Australia's human rights commissioner, said in an essay in The Australian that the dispute at Western Australia showed that the country's “culture of open debate is increasingly sick.”

Critics of Lomborg's views, Wilson said, were engaging in the “cancerous” tactic of “no platforming,” in which people “protest against someone being given a platform to speak, or where it has been provided, campaign to have it removed.” Wilson attributed the tactic to students in Britain who are opposed to racist or fascist views. “But it has now evolved beyond simply opposing racist or fascist views to target people who don’t fit accepted progressive groupthink, such as Lomborg,” Wilson wrote.

Australia's education minister, Christopher Pyne, said the government would seek to finance the center elsewhere. “We are having discussions intern­ally about the best way to deliver the Australian Consensus Centre. You can be certain it will happen," he said. "Freedom of speech demands that it does."

And an editorial in The Australian bemoaned the state of free speech and free thought in Australian higher education and the country.

“Given the stifling political correctness in our universities, the UWA center would have been a worthy contributor to the national debate (regardless of what some might think about the Coalition finding the funds in these stringent times),“ the editorial said. ”Yet so far the decision has only shown that the intellectual and political bullying against dissenting views might be even worse in this country than we had imagined. That a university would reverse its decision to welcome a center for challenging ideas on the basis that some felt challenged by the idea is almost too farcical to be true. But it is not a laughing matter.”


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