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Uni of West Australia retreats from Bjorn Lomborg association due to massive opposition by university staff, students, public

"Therefore, it is with great regret and disappointment that I have formed the view that the events of the past few weeks places the Centre 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. By its very nature a centre of this sort requires co-operation of a wide range of people across many fields." (Paul Johnson, Vice Chancellor, University of West Australia). The following is the letter from the Vice Chancellor addressed to colleagues on this issue.

Colleagues

In early April The University of Western Australia announced it had secured $4 million in Federal Government funding to establish an Australia Consensus Centre to undertake detailed economic cost benefit analysis into many of Australia’s, and the world’s, biggest challenges.

The Centre is unique in that it is to deliver robust, evidence-based knowledge and advice to the Australian Government on potential policy reforms and other interventions that will deliver the smartest, most cost-effective solutions in areas ranging from poverty, social justice and food sustainability. Many of these issues will form the basis of the United Nations’ post 2015 Development Goals.

Constructively contributing to this agenda should be the domain of a world leading university such as UWA.

The University of Western Australia embraced the opportunity to host the Centre as we, a credible and influential academic institution, have a duty to contribute to the global response by actively encouraging the exploration of new ideas, challenging established thinking, and posing the difficult "what if" questions.

This sentiment is captured in UWA’s values which espouse the importance of academic freedom to encourage staff and students to engage in the open exchange of ideas and thought; and fostering the values of openness, honesty, tolerance, fairness, trust and responsibility.

However, the creation of the Australia Consensus Centre attracted a mixed reaction from staff, students and the general public. The scale of the strong and passionate emotional reaction was one that the University did not predict.

Over the past few weeks, I have met and talked to staff, students and members of the public to hear their views, and to explain how the Centre will operate within the University, the type of economic analysis it will undertake, and to correct many mistruths and misunderstandings about the centre.

I have stated many times that it is not a centre to study climate change, that the University was not providing any direct funding to the Centre, and that that Bjorn Lomborg would not be involved in its day-to-day operations.

During this time, I have carefully considered several key questions to help better understand the views, opinions and emotions expressed during the debate.

I asked myself:

Is it appropriate for UWA to house a centre that will undertake economic cost benefit analysis to help governments evaluate the most effective ways to address many of the world’s challenges? Without a doubt. An examination of the United Nations’ post 2015 development goals, which include halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of AIDS, and providing universal primary education is evidence of the importance of testing our thinking about the best possible solution.

Is it appropriate for the Australia Consensus Centre to be funded by the Federal Government through a direct grant? Again the answer is yes as many well-respected research centres across the country are funded this way including the Australian Centre on China in the World at ANU, the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University, and our own Perth USAsia Centre.

Is it appropriate for Doctor Bjorn Lomborg to be associated with UWA? I understand there are strong views on this issue. However, I believe that a man who has worked with many Nobel Laureate economists, has been named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, and has published with Cambridge University Press meets the criteria of being made an Adjunct Professor – an honorary position that carries no salary.

Despite all this, there remains a strong opposition to the Centre. 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.

Therefore, it is with great regret and disappointment that I have formed the view that the events of the past few weeks places the Centre 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. By its very nature a centre of this sort requires co-operation of a wide range of people across many fields.

Yours sincerely Paul Johnson

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Comments

I wasn't aware that open and free inquiry involved caving in to vocal threats and pressure. This happens too frequently. Someone will want to speak, appear, and a vocal (usually minority) will issue vague threats and put pressure, and academia will fold like a deck chair in a cyclone.

Actions like this give credence to the argument that climate change is an ideology pushed by force for political purposes. These displays seem to give people reason to support this supposition, as it ostensibly appears to be exactly which climate change sceptics say happens to push the climate change ideology. It also reveals a lack of faith (and understanding, as if often the case) of the scientific process.

Don't you think we have enough right-wing 'think tanks?' I don't think that such a think tank would allow significant debate and would play by scientific rules, especially with 4m behind it and government support. You don't get rid of something like that with free and open inquiry. Not that our universities are great protectors of scientific method, due to the sway of the great dollar. So it is a bit amazing that the UWA and WA community stood on their hind feet for a little while on this.

Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg has blamed "toxic politics, ad hominem attacks, and premature judgment" for the University of Western Australia's decision to pull out of his planned Australia Consensus Centre which would have advised on the best ways to tackle the world's development challenges.

Bjorn Lomborg blames 'toxic politics' for University back down on Australia Consensus Centre (9/5/15) | AFR

Lomborg has argued that climate change is real and poses problems, but is not as urgent a problem to the world as disease, poverty and lack of clean water. Surely climate change will exacerbate the latter, and so will population growth inhibit "development" of nations?

Rather than think-tanks, sponsored by governments, we have universities as business-like institutions, there to create an income flow for governments. Academics who want to build their careers need to play politics and stay on the "right" side, or be retired before they can be open and reveal objective and enlightened ideals. There's an idealistic clash between really dealing with the problems of the world, and with capitalist aims of big growth, profits, and globalisation.

This may have been the comment that was deleted.

There probably are enough neo-con think tanks and such. Academia has to set an example, and follow the scientific process though. Caving in to vocal pressure is not how science works. In doing this, they prove to people that the AGW position is politically motivated and enforced by censure and lobbying. This in my opinion, harms the ability for people to objectively assess the issue. It is counter productive and harms the goals of those who wish to see the issue addressed.

And it isn't just Lomborg. Any time someone who the establishment opposes wishes to speak, there is pressure and threats. This occurs more frequently than it should at uni, but pressure is also put on private businesses this way too. Want to hear a European politician who challenges the EU superstructure speak? If vocal political activists have an issue with them, your chances are diminished, as these people will "put pressure" on the hosting establishment, forcing them to abandon hosting, for their own safety, of course...

I also believe that many think scientists are somehow less biases, and that money only affects the scepticist side. I disagree. There is a lot of money that goes into climate change, and anyone who for a living studies something which is funded by government, or funded by anyone, is under pressure. Even to graduate, to get a professorship, this means one has to meet the requirements of someone else, who is biased. People seem to think that scientists are somehow, unlike any other profession, completely objective, that scientific truth is held by scientists, rather than discovered by the scientific process.

I agree generally with what you are saying, and I didn't mean to imply that universities were scientific, nor that scientists were necessarily scientific. Science is a great thing but it can be worn like a cloak to dignify anything you say, just as priests may use religious clothing. The same abuse happens with media and government anointed authorities, be they scientific, religious, showbiz or the very wealthy.

Academia often doesn't support the scientific process and neither do the 'think tanks'.

Money distorts everything, especially where locals and people on the ground are sidelined for 'authorities'.