The US Government has asked two scientific journals to censor data on bird flu. Nature and Science were asked by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to publish redacted versions of studies by two research groups that suggests the H5N1 avian flu could spread quickly among humans. The laboratory-made version of bird flu covered in the data could easily jump between ferrets — a sign a mutated form of the virus could spread among humans. The journals are objecting to the request, saying it would restrict access to information that might advance the cause of public health.
Transparency in science is in the news these days, from leaked emails on climate change to unpublished drugs trials and information being kept out of the public domain for reasons of confidentiality or copyright. But calls for transparency and openness are almost always met with claims that scientific research is potentially at risk from persistent FOI requests or demands from the public to make science more easily accessible.
Should raw data be available to everyone? What is the value of transparency? Is the sharing of NHS patient data an example of good transparency? Who defines what open access means?
These questions and others were up for discussion at Index on Censorship’s “Data Debate” at Imperial College last night, marking the publication of the new issue of the magazine, “Dark matter: What’s science got to hide?” The event was chaired by the magazine’s editor, Jo Glanville.
The philosopher Baroness O’Neill opened the discussion by pointing out that the Protection of Freedoms Bill places greater pressure on academics, calling as it does for openness. But this is not a new concept for scientists — the Royal Society is based on openness, viewing science as a public enterprise. What was difficult, she said, at a time when transparency is so valued by so many, is how open data might be “reusable” in a way that is useful and productive.
Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, agreed. “Science”, he said, “has led the way with openness”. But he warned against the dangers of raw data, which he likened to raw sewage (easily the most tweeted comment of the night, and repeated throughout the event’s discussion). Like O’Neill, Walport called for “useful” data sets to be available to the public so that serious misinterpretation of this unsorted data did not stand in the way of public knowledge.
But the journalist and campaigner George Monbiot called for full access to data, saying that it was counterproductive to allow scientists to determine who accesses information. He spoke of the public’s suspicion about science; at times communication between the scientific community and the public was simply a “tragedy of human incomprehension”. The public are told they need to know more and more about science and yet there are significant barriers to making this possible. He admitted the media were partly to blame, but stated that openness would help ease the public’s suspicion. As Fred Pearce writes in the magazine, “the fuss over climategate showed that the world is increasly unwilling to accept the message that ‘we are scientists; trust us’.”
Professor David Colquhoun called for greater openness in clinical trials. The competitive nature of the scientific community is exploited, he lamented, particularly within the drugs industry. As a result, important research is kept from the public, often because while clinical tests must be registered, the results do not have to be published. It’s a subject explored in detail by Deborah Cohen, BMJ investigations editor, in the current issue of the magazine too. Colquhoun offered that competition also meant that a huge amount of research was being carried out and not all of it to a good standard. Perhaps, he said, a reduction in the number of studies would bring about higher quality research.
When science and free expression clash, it’s often a matter of public concern. The fallout from Professor David Nutt’s clash with the government was one of many topics tackled at a panel discussion at the British Academy on Monday night. As perhaps the most famous recent example of government rejection of scientific research, the furore over Professor Nutt’s findings about drug use exposed the disconnect between scientists’ presentation of data and government policy –– and, for those working in criminology, education or communications, the problems can be even greater.
The event, jointly organised by SAGE and the Academy, part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, presented the panel with the question: “How can social scientists and government work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?”
For Julian Huppert MP, this was a chance to challenge the belief that politics and science simply don’t mix. Unhappy with the way in which some politicians have shied away from attempts to place the work of social scientists at the heart of some of their own decision-making, he applauded the Conservative manifesto pledge to encourage MPs to attend a course in understanding science. Unfortunately, only a handful of politicians took part — and those who amounted to “crisis cases” within politics were nowhere to be seen.
Professor Anthony Heath also had some complaining to do: lamenting the fact that social scientists rely too often on “stylised”facts and selective use of events. Social scientists need to be aware of the difference between advocacy research and scientific research, he added.
For Imperial College academic and Guardian contributor Dr Alice Bell, who contributed to research for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality in science reporting, there is a real need for social scientists to have their findings challenged, acknowledged and debated, not only in Westminster, but in the public arena: for this, the media is crucial — and the work of PR professionals should not be discounted.
How scientists communicate –– and what is hidden –– is explored in the forthcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine, Dark matter: What’s science got to hide? The issue, published by SAGE, looks at how scientific data is digested, politicised or suppressed — whether it be the work of doctors, physicists or oceanographers. Fred Pearce, author of The Climate Files, is an advocate for data sharing, calling for an openness in scientific communities, particularly on the heels of the Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia. Sense about Science‘s Tracey Brown laments the increasing pressures on scientists and stepped up attempts to silence their debate, not least due to the chilling effect of English libel law. The BMJ’s investigative editor Deborah Cohen looks at how keeping information about drugs trials out of the public domain can have disastrous results — here some trusted names in the drugs business come under scrutiny.
Elsewhere, in the United States, warnings over the dangers of deepwater drilling go ignored in a political environment that has led President Obama to disappoint those who had hoped for a more transparent approach to research. The ACLU’s Heather Weaver outlines the beguiling trajectory of the powerful creationist lobby and its impact on the US education system. And in China, the pollution politics at play paints a worrying future for some of the country’s population.
The issue is out on 28 November, with a launch of the magazine at Imperial College on 6 December. For more information about The Art Issue, available now, and to subscribe to the magazine, click here.