Secrecy in science is a corrosive force

  • Date: 28/11/09

Financial Times: With no disrespect to sausages and laws, Bismarck’s most famous aphorism clearly requires updating. “Scientific research” is bidding furiously to make the global shortlist of things one should not see being made.
Understandably so. Sciences at the cutting edge of statistics and public policy can make blood sports seem genteel. Scientists aggressively promoting pet hypotheses often relish the opportunity to marginalise and neutralise rival theories and exponents.
The malice, mischief and Machiavellian manoeuvrings revealed in the illegally hacked megabytes of emails from the University of East Anglia’s prestigious Climate Research Unit, for example, offers a useful paradigm of contemporary scientific conflict. Science may be objective; scientists emphatically are not. This episode illustrates what too many universities, professional societies, and research funders have irresponsibly allowed their scientists to become. Shame on them all.
The source of that shame is a toxic mix of institutional laziness and complacency. Too many scientists in academia, industry and government are allowed to get away with concealing or withholding vital information about their data, research methodologies and results. That is unacceptable and must change.
Only recently in America, for example, have academic pharmaceutical researchers been required to disclose certain financial conflicts of interest they might have. On issues of the greatest importance for public policy, science researchers less transparent than they should be. That behaviour undermines science, policy and public trust.
Dubbed “climate-gate” by global warming sceptics, the most outrageous East Anglia email excerpts appear to suggest respected scientists misleadingly manipulated data and suppressed legitimate argument in peer-reviewed journals.
These claims are forcefully denied, but the correspondents do little to enhance confidence in either the integrity or the professionalism of the university’s climatologists. What is more, there are no denials around the researchers’ repeated efforts to avoid meaningful compliance with several requests under the UK Freedom of Information Act to gain access to their working methods. Indeed, researchers were asked to delete and destroy emails. Secrecy, not privacy, is at the rotten heart of this bad behavior by ostensibly good scientists.
Why should research funding institutions and taxpayers fund scientists who deliberately delay, obfuscate and deny open access to their research? Why should scientific journals publish peer-reviewed research where the submitting scientists have not made every reasonable effort to make their work – from raw data to sophisticated computer simulations – as transparent and accessible as possible? Why should responsible policymakers in America, Europe, Asia and Latin America make decisions affecting people’s health, wealth and future based on opaque and inaccessible science?

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