This was the finding of a study published in the December issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
The study, conducted by Boshra Yazahmeidi and Professor D’Arcy Holman of School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia, surveyed 302 academics in 17 institutions across Australia, who reported experiencing or witnessing 142 cases of suppression.
Affected researchers had their research reports blocked, faced abnormal delays in pursuing or publishing their research, or were directly requested to modify or sanitise their results by a government agency. Some were refused funding.
Suppression cases took place where a government agency provided the data necessary to conduct the research, or commissioned and funded the research directly, and put conditions on the release of the results, and where government employees were part of the research team and were restricted in what they could and could not do.
Senior author, Prof. D’Arcy Holman, said research was most commonly targeted because it drew attention to a failure in an area of health service (about one half of instances).
“Another quarter of suppression events was related to studies where the focus was the health status of a vulnerable group – Indigenous people, refugee groups, people with mental illness,” Prof. Holman said.
“About one in ten events related to an environmental health problem – toxic chemicals in the environment, exposure to infection risks, etc.
“A clear-cut observation from the research results is that both the State (or Territory) and Commonwealth levels of Government in Australia have been involved in this. No State or Territory has been immune, and governments of both persuasions have been involved during study period, the past five and a half years.
“We are now starting to see an increasing level of interest in the area of freedom of speech. The publication of this article in the same year as the Moss Report* is quite notable. While the Moss Report deals with a different area – freedom of information legislation and the way it affects the media – some of the problems bear similarity with those faced by researchers in universities doing what should be independent, public interest research.”
Prof. Holman, who was awarded the 2006 Sydney Sax Public Health Medal, the highest professional recognition for protection and promotion of community health, has called on the new Rudd Government to support the urgent development of a national policy on “truth in the health system.”
“A democratically responsible government, focused on high performance for the benefit of the public, will welcome the involvement of independent university-based researchers in evaluation of health services.
“The best health ministers and Government agency CEOs that I have worked with over the years are those who wanted to be told about where problems exist, so they could acknowledge the challenges openly and lead the health sector towards better results in the future,” Prof. Holman said.-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.