Skip to main content

Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay

Climategate and some other high-profile, if ultimately rare, scientific embarrassments lead academics to study transparency.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

When hacked e-mails between climate change researchers surfaced late last year, they created a furor. The messages, swiped from a server at a British university, included a reference to a statistical trick and slights against critics.

To climate change skeptics, this was proof of what they'd been saying all along: The idea of a warming Earth is a boondoggle, bought into by greenie extremists looking to blame SUVs, air-conditioning and factory-farmed sirloin.

Critics gave climate researchers a good telling off, but the scientists stuck to their guns — er, graphs — citing a proliferation of evidence that the Earth is warming.

Climategate was a painful reminder that you can't separate science from society — that researchers can no longer expect to exist in an ivory tower of isolation, with academic papers serving as their primary means of communication with the greater world.

"There's not anybody in any field related to science and society who's not thinking about this," says Harvard University's Sheila Jasanoff, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week in San Diego. The confab, which this year explored the increasingly important, if treacherous, intersection of science and society, included a "late-breaking" session on ensuring the transparency and integrity of scientific research — attended by editors and reporters who've covered controversies like Climategate. The discussion featured researchers who've been the target of criticism and scientists working to improve the practice of science and the conduct of scientists.

To be fair, says Francisco Ayala of the University of California, Irvine, one of the authors of the latest edition of On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research — the few dozen cases of scientific fraud that have come to light over the last few decades represent "a tiny fraction" of research output.

Furthermore, adds climate scientist Gerald North of Texas A&M University, "Uncovering a small flaw here or there makes a better story than covering the boring findings, which are that the climate is warming."

Public controversy over science is hardly a new phenomenon, of course — think Dolly, the cloned sheep — but these days, Jasanoff says, the public expects accountability from science, especially as it becomes more important in our lives, and more complex and abundant than ever before.

"We're literally undergoing a revolution in how we do science," says molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-chaired a committee examining how the integrity, accessibility and stewardship of data can be ensured in this digital age.

Training is key, Sharp says, and scientific institutions need to establish and disseminate standards on data management and accessibility.

Scientists, he says, bear the primary responsibility for the accuracy of their data, which should be made available freely — and promptly — along with details of their methodology and any other information required to ensure data is properly understood or interpreted.

As admirable as that might be, what will non-scientists make of this bounty of data, much of it impenetrable to anybody but a specialist in some minute scientific niche? Could more information actually be a dangerous thing — perhaps the equivalent of this winter's "Snowmageddon," which climate change critics say proves their point?

The public "may not be able to use the data," Sharp says, "but they do know if the data's being kept secret." Putting it on show, he argues, will help bolster public trust.

Jasanoff says the conditions that nurture great science have a lot in common with the underpinnings of a healthy democracy: a skeptical but experimental mindset and expectations of openness and transparency. According to Jasanoff, integrity and transparency don't go far enough. She talks of reciprocity and engagement, and says that if the public distrusts science, "it's not because people are ignorant or stupid," but because of "a failure to bring them along with the scientific mindset." Nonetheless, "citizens and media have a responsibility here, too," she adds.

For their part, scientists could use some help communicating with the public, according to North, who chaired a group convened by the National Academy of Sciences to revisit the infamous "hockey stick" graph, which was published in a 2001 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and showed the Earth warming rapidly toward the end of the 20th century. The review group added more recent climate data to the mix and concluded, as North says in typically measured science-speak, "It's very likely that the last decade has been the warmest of the last 400 years," and "plausible" that it's the warmest of the last 1,000 years.

That's one of the challenges for scientists trying to communicate their work to the general public: They can't respond to venomous criticism — "If you could see some of the e-mails I get ...," North says — with equally vicious rhetoric.

Although Sharp says engaging the public is important, as a mentor, he'll give young scientists space "if they just want to be left alone to do science."

Most of them, though, are eager to embrace the world outside the ivory tower, Sharp says.

"They understand that their science and what they're doing in their day-to-day life has important implications in society, and in many cases they take solace in that."

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.