Is transparency bad for science?

Transparency in science is in the news these days, from leaked emails on climate change to unpublished drugs trials and information being kept out of the public domain for reasons of confidentiality or copyright.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.

Azerbaijan: Supreme Court upholds Bakhtiyar Hajiyev judgment

The Supreme Court of Azerbaijan upheld the sentence of a young activist and blogger on 6 December. Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was sentenced to two years‘ imprisonment after using Facebook to generate support for the 11 March “Great People’s Day” anti-government protests. The 29-year-old Harvard graduate was charged with evading military service in May, but lost his appeal against the conviction.

Natasha Schmidt, Assistant Editor of Index on Censorship magazine condemned the decision:

“The Azerbaijani authorities have demonstrated once again that they are entirely hostile to freedom of expression and the right to protest. Like activist Jabber Savalan, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev remains in jail on a charge unrelated to his activism, a tactic increasingly employed to silence dissenting voices.”

A report by the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan, of which Index on Censorship is a member, outlines the dire state of press freedom in Azerbaijan.

What does free speech mean for young people?

Exciting. Innovative. Shocking. That’s how Wednesday’s TRIPWIRES performance was described by some of those in attendance. For the performers, both the process and the event itself were “life-changing” and “just the beginning”. The night combined dance, theatre, martial art, political expression and satire to explore what free speech means to young Londoners.

The interactive performance, which was staged at East London’s Mile End Arts Pavilion, focused on some of the most challenging, frightening and taboo subjects shaping lives: offence; self-censorship; the experience of not having a voice; difference of opinion and the tensions that arise from it.

The project, a collaboration between Index on Censorship and international youth arts organisation Phakama, grew out of a series of investigative workshops over four months. It was devised by the crew themselves, drawing on archive material from Index on Censorship and, crucially, their own experiences and backgrounds. It was the pilot for what Index on Censorship and Phakama hope will be a long-running educational initiative.

The performance featured a series of scenarios: the stoning of a young woman presented as a circus attraction; a catwalk that drew out the themes of the objectification of women and beauty as alienation; the “free space” that leaves participants dumbstruck and lost for words; the waiting room where preferential treatment can be bought and sold. Audience participation was crucial to the unraveling of each absorbing and often uncomfortable scenario. The tacit question asked by each scenario was: where do you draw the line?

Voices came from unexpected places, disorientating, challenging and bringing the audience into the debate. Music, movement, singing, storytelling all contributed to a thoroughly atmospheric account of what it’s like to be young, vulnerable, charismatic ­ and ready to confront life, whatever it offers up.

Later, the audience was invited outside the theatre, equipped with individual headsets, the voices of the TRIPWIRES performers’ in their ears. Film, movement, singing, visual  art — and a sculpture of a burning man  — all played their part in creating a dynamic, inspiring and memorable experience. It’s one that will keep the audience thinking for a long time to come.

Azerbaijan: Free expression under attack

Observers including Index on Censorship’s  Natasha Schmidt report on the country’s climate of fear

Ahead of Azerbaijan’s upcoming parliamentary elections, nine organisations, including Index on Censorship, are launching a new report titled Free Expression under Attack: Azerbaijan’s Deteriorating Media Environment. The report findings come out of a joint freedom of expression mission to the country in September 2010 and highlight the Azerbaijani government’s failure to comply with its international commitments to promote and protect freedom of expression. (more…)