Defend academic integrity and keep Flinders Bjorn free

Discredited academic, Bjorn Lomborg, and his flawed ‘consensus’ methodology should have no place at any institution that values academic integrity.

On the 24th of July, it was revealed that Flinders University had sought information from the federal government on collaborating with Lomborg and his Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC). The word ‘revealed’ is significant here, as our university’s interest in pursuing funding previously rejected by the University of Western Australia (UWA) was first publicised in the mass media. Not through consultative discussion between senior administration, staff, and students. Not via internal emails highlighting the possibility of a partnership and seeking feedback. Not even by way of a blog post in Flinders News (such a post only emerged in response to media reports, and amusingly failed to even mention Bjorn Lomborg).

So began a process—driven by the university’s Executive Committee and a small group of academics—thus far marked by inconsistent and limited information, exclusive and poorly-publicised consultation, and a visceral disdain for the views of students and staff.

More than three weeks later, we are no closer to having definitive answers on key questions surrounding any collaboration with Lomborg and the CCC. In accepting this $4 million government grant, would Flinders University be hosting Bjorn Lomborg? Would any research or work conducted be required to utilise the CCC’s ‘consensus’ methodology? Would the federal government have particular expectations in return for the funding, and would Flinders be required to contribute to that funding? What would the procedure be for formulating a proposal for collaboration with the CCC, and by what processes would such a proposal be assessed? What form would the Flinders-Lomborg partnership take? Would a cost-benefit analysis be conducted, with particular attention to the reputational risks for the university?

Little conclusive information has been provided from either Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling or Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Andrew Parkin. The details that have been provided have been contradictory and vague. Yet Flinders University is positioning itself to scramble for the discarded scraps of overtly-politicised government funding dismissed by other institutions. This is an embarrassment for all staff and students here at Flinders. But, we can gain some insight into the aforementioned questions from the abandoned government agreement with UWA.

What the CCC’s association with Flinders would look like, how it would function, and what its aims would be at Flinders remains unclear. When proposed to be located at UWA, the plans entailed the establishment of an ‘Australia Consensus Centre’, providing an antipodean incarnation of Lomborg’s existing CCC. This organisation is currently located in the United States and reliant upon private funding, following the revocation of subsidies by the Danish government. The American-based CCC was in fact run out of a parcel shipping centre in Massachusetts, while financial contributions were diverted toward Lomborg’s international travel.

Documents obtained by The Guardian, under freedom of information, showed that the centre at UWA would operate as somewhat of a ‘think tank’, publishing four reports and recommending policies to the federal government. Each of these reports would be based on the CCC’s ‘consensus’ methodology— broadly, cost-benefit analysis.

The UWA agreement incorporated a public speaking role for Lomborg, through which he’d feature in a range of seminars and other engagements under the banner ‘The Australian Rational Conversation’. It was later revealed, again by The Guardian under freedom of information, that $800,000 of the $4 million grant was stipulated for use in marketing and promoting CCC events. These events themselves were approximated to cost up to $2 million. This raises questions as to the capacity of such funding to produce reliable and reputable new research, as was noted by UWA’s Professor Tim Mazzarol.

It’s apparent from the UWA agreement with the Abbott government that the purpose of the funding is to employ Lomborg’s ‘consensus’ research approach to a range of policy problems. The ‘consensus’ methodology is neither much of a methodology, nor does it generate any consensus as to its validity—even amongst those that participate in CCC events. Lomborg’s approach is seriously flawed, relying on a narrow conception of economics, manifested in the misapplication of cost-benefit analysis and economic modelling.

Dr Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University, was previously invited to participate in the CCC process. In an interview with Graham Readfearn, Jotzo was highly critical of the CCC methodology, stating:

‘Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.’

Advocates of Lomborg and the CCC at Flinders—the very few that exist—often make reference to the participation in CCC events by esteemed academics. Yet Jotzo explains that this fundamentally misses the point of this line of criticism regarding Lomborg’s methodology:

‘My reference to lack of academic credibility relates to how the ‘Consensus’ exercises are set up, not to the work of those invited to contribute to them. The exercises are framed as discrete choices of different objectives or policy options, when in reality the sensible course of action will almost always be a mix of different objectives or courses of action. The problem with this framing of false alternatives was called out, for example, by a group of academics who contributed to the 2008 Consensus exercise in a paper published in the journal Climate Change Economics.’

Associate Professor Michael Brown, of Monash University’s School of Physics & Astronomy, echoes Jotzo:

‘… the Copenhagen consensus project draws upon a relatively narrow pool of economists. Many prominent economists are highly critical of the consensus centre. In particular, its design includes unrealistic policy trade-offs and economic assumptions that, by design, lead to conclusions against immediate action on climate change.’

 Lomborg has also been accused of misrepresenting results produced by CCC-sponsored research. In 2008, Lomborg wrote that climate change would produce a variety of global benefits, and that we should avoid ‘even moderate CO2 cuts’ as such cuts ‘cost more than they do good’. Lomborg viewed climate change scientists and activists as ‘frantic campaigners’ who produce ‘a barrage of ever-more scary scenarios in an attempt to get the public to accept their civilisation-changing proposals’. In support of these claims, Lomborg made reference to the CCC’s 2008 primary climate change paper.

Gary Yohe, Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University, was an author of this CCC paper. Professor Yohe contends that such claims by Lomborg are grossly misleading and represent a ‘deliberate distortion’ of the paper’s conclusions.

One cannot disassociate Bjorn Lomborg, the CCC, or the proposed Australian Consensus Centre, from Lomborg’s views on climate change. While Lomborg does accept the reality of climate change, he is a climate inactivist, employing flawed frameworks to manufacture desired results—often at the behest of others. Lomborg is essentially an economist-for-hire, with questionable credibility and integrity. He has been utilised by governments and organisations to obscure the debate around climate change and delay serious mitigation policies. Indeed, while Lomborg’s CCC refuses to disclose its sources of funding, an investigation found that the centre is backed by organisations with links to the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry.

Both Vice Chancellor Colin Stirling and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Andrew Parkin have emphasised that any collaboration by Flinders with Lomborg would not pertain to climate change. This is a welcome assurance, but it does not overcome the primary issue with any association with Lomborg and the CCC. That is, the application of a thoroughly discredited research framework. After all, it is this very process (and Lomborg’s misrepresentation of even its own findings) that forms the basis of Lomborg’s views on climate change mitigation.

What distorted findings should we expect if this discredited methodology is applied, as has been proposed, to foreign aid distribution? To public spending on health, education, and the environment? To prosperity and well-being? Each time with Flinders University’s endorsement and support.

Let us not forget that bringing Lomborg and his consensus model to Australia is quite clearly part of a broader political agenda. Lomborg has regularly derided the use of carbon pricing mechanisms and has instead encouraged a ‘direct action’ approach of investing in research—though at a low investment priority. Unsurprisingly, Greg Hunt used Lomborg’s cost-benefit analysis as the foundation of the government’s ‘direct action’ policy. Prime Minister Abbott is also a noted fan of Lomborg’s, citing him in his own book, Battlelines. Julie Bishop has appointed Lomborg to the federal government’s foreign aid innovation group, as one of just 14 members. Meanwhile, Christopher Pyne has adopted, as a personal mission, the objective of locating Bjorn Lomborg to an Australian university. This is the same government that has overseen consistent and severe cuts to the foreign aid budget, as well as the health, education and environment funding. How convenient it would be to have university-backed ‘research’ to support such budgetary decisions.

Those defending collaboration with Lomborg and welcoming participation in this transparent political agenda have exploited, as a shield, the notion of ‘academic freedom’. It is indeed an admirable value, to be adhered to and vehemently protected.

Yet, it must be recognised that the academic freedom of a small minority of academics collaborating with a discredited researcher could in fact detract from the capacity of the majority of Flinders researchers to exercise their own academic freedom. By associating an institution with discredited individuals and organisations, you expose the entirety of that institution – staff and students – to the myriad consequences of a reduction, perceived or actual, in academic integrity. The chance for reputational risk is real, and may indeed cost more than the $4 million in funding received. Academic freedom is just one of many values to which a university must aspire, and to balance.

Some of those proposing to accept government funding to collaborate with Lomborg and the CCC have also invoked the words of our founding Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Karmel. Professor Karmel declared that our institution should ‘experiment and experiment bravely’. But, there is nothing brave about abandoning Flinders University’s reputation for applying innovative and reputable research toward local, national and global progress. There is nothing brave about lending our name to a government seeking to prosecute a particular agenda on the basis of flawed research. There is nothing brave about a Vice Chancellor in a University Council meeting, holding aloft open letters with close to 7,000 signatures, declaring that a decision on whether or not to collaborate with Lomborg would not be made based upon the views of students and staff.

It is time to end this farce of a consultation and decision-making process. It is time reject, as so many other Australian institutions have, the possibility of collaborating with Bjorn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus Centre.

Words by Josh Holloway (PhD Candidate & Sessional Academic, School of Social and Policy)