Year

2013

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication

Abstract

The Tasmanian devil is a carnivorous marsupial endemic to the island state of Tasmania, part of the larger continent of Australia, threatened with extinction from a deadly cancer. The research into the cancer, termed Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), followed a pathway that supported the hypothesis that the cancer was transmissible, passed from devil to devil by biting, called an allograft. By adopting a political sociological approach, I analyse the scientific research into the devil cancer through the concept of undone science, which I expand by developing a typology of reasons, both practical and political, for deficits of knowledge.

My analysis initially finds that scientific evidence has not been established to confirm the transmission of the cancer by biting. The devil cancer research has also failed to produce convincing support for the precedent of a dog transmissible cancer. Whilst allograft research was pursued, the competing hypothesis that chemicals used in plantation forestry might have contributed to the disease was neglected. There were many calls for further toxicology studies but to date these have not been undertaken.

Due to the devils’ listing as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the scientific uncertainty surrounding the cause of the cancer, the precautionary principle is relevant. Applying it would enable decision makers to seek further scientific studies into the cause of the cancer and to mitigate the harm by further restricting or banning the use of the chemical atrazine used in plantation forestry. I analyse four wildlife cancers, including the Tasmanian devil, to demonstrate that in all cases toxicology studies have been neglected.

Close relations between the Tasmanian government and the forestry industry, when operations should be at arms length, have resulted in a conflict of interest in the regulation of chemical use in plantations and the overseeing of the Tasmanian devil scientific research. I recommend that public participation and lay knowledge be incorporated into the future governance of environmental issues.

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