Skip to main content

Why Scientific Transparency Is So Tricky

People love transparency in science, until they don’t.

By Paul D. Thacker


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A year ago, I opened my email to find a note from William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University, who was asking for my help to push the federal science agencies to be more transparent. I was recently surprised to learn that he is now being considered as President Donald Trump’s science adviser.

Happer contacted me after I had written a piece on the importance of transparency in science for the New York Times, in which I pointed out that scientists have no more right to try and hide their emails than any other public official. In part, I was addressing a campaign by the Union of Concerned Scientists to attack and harass reporters and non-profits who were using Freedom of Information (FOI) laws to uncover corruption in science. These laws have been incredibly important in shining a spotlight on corrupt practices at government agencies and public universities.

The Boston Globe later forced Michael Halpern at the UCS to admit that they were trying to alter transparency laws to shield scientists. David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ freedom of information committee, ridiculed this campaign by UCS as “gibberish.”

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to transparency in the Trump administration might come with the unraveling of the Affordable Care Act.

Still, after reading Happer’s email, I chose to not respond. Happer denies the overwhelming evidence on climate change and has his own problems with transparency. In late 2015, he was stung in an undercover operation run by Greenpeace employees posing as fossil-fuel consultants and offering payment for papers that extolled the benefits of burning carbon. After inquiring whether Happer would need to disclose the fossil-fuel funding for these papers, Happer told the phony consultants that the money should be sent to a non-profit called the CO2 Coalition — essentially laundering the funding to hide its true source.

When later confronted about these emails by the Times, Happer responded — in a terribly confused manner — that he believes in full financial transparency.

Transparency is a popular in science when it serves someone’s purposes, a fact that is becoming clear in Trump’s administration, just as it was in President Barack Obama’s. During his Senate confirmation hearing to run the Environmental Protection Agency, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was asked whether he supported transparency and compliance with FOI laws. The question was pertinent because Obama’s administrator for the agency had been caught using a fake name for her email, which Republicans argued was an attempt to avoid disclosing communications.

“Yes,” Pruitt replied. “As I indicated in my opening statement, I really believe that public participation, transparency in rule-making is very important.”

Pruitt’s answer was pretty nonsensical, since he’d been so withholding himself during the confirmation process: Democrats later boycotted the committee’s final vote to approve his nomination, citing his lack of response to their questions and failure to provide documents. (Pruitt told Democrats they could get the documents by contacting the office of the attorney general of Oklahoma — the office that he ran.) That same day, the Center for Media and Democracy sued Pruitt for failing to release emails they had requested over two years previously. On the evening before he was confirmed by the Senate, a judge forced Pruitt to release some of the emails, which later showed his close ties to the fossil-fuel industry. Other lawsuits demanding the release of more of Pruitt’s emails are pending.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to transparency in the Trump administration might come with the unraveling of the Affordable Care Act. Rolled up in that bill, which Trump is insistent on killing, is the Physician Payments Sunshine Act — a bill I first drafted and then helped push through Congress while serving as a Senate investigator. My committee wanted this bill passed because every time we investigated bad drugs or corruption at the Food and Drug Administration, we kept uncovering doctors who were secretly being paid to act as advocates for the pharmaceutical industry. Today, you can go to the Open Payments website and look up your doctor to see if he is taking money from a drug company and why he is being paid. If the ACA goes away, the PPSA could too.

In a recent commentary, James Rickert, who heads a physician advocacy group, argued that killing off this website as part of the ongoing rollback of the ACA would destroy a valuable transparency tool. “The publicly available data it has created lets consumers and other interested parties judge for themselves whether their doctors have important conflicts of interest that might affect their treatment decisions.”

Rickert’s fears are not unfounded, as the Trump administration has shown itself to be no fan of access to public information. In early February, the Department of Agriculture took down a website that listed reports on the humane treatment of animals kept by zoos, circuses, and research labs. People will now have to use FOI to access those reports.

Every time we investigated bad drugs or corruption at the Food and Drug Administration, we kept uncovering doctors who were secretly being paid to act as advocates for the pharmaceutical industry.

To be certain, FOI remains a crucial tool for protecting public health. In the last year, journalists and non-profits have used FOI to uncover university scientists receiving money and secretly advocating for Monsanto, attempts by the National Football League to secretly influence government research on concussions, and cozy relations between Coca-Cola and a high-ranking official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But most experts predict that this administration will be slow to respond to public requests. The James Madison Project, where I am a member of the board, is a small non-profit that provides advice and litigation support for journalists and non-profits seeking access to public information. Since Trump’s election, we have been inundated with requests and donations. Other groups are similarly predicting that their requests for information will be met only after they sue for compliance.

Even UCS has joined in on the act. While still bleating support for transparency, it is simultaneously defending the Trump administration from a lawsuit that would force federal scientists to disclose their emails. In a recent article, Michael Halpern of UCS speculated that Trump might withhold the requested documents because he would not want to set a precedent where the public would have easier access to his administration’s emails.

“Science is science and facts are facts,” Trump said while campaigning for election. “My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.”

It’s a worthy promise, but one seldom kept. People love transparency in science, until they don’t.