Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Dark Matter: What’s Science Got to Hide?

Scientific data is more freely available than ever. But does the push for openness help or hinder science?

A panel debate at Imperial College London on 6th December sought to answer this question, launching the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine—a special issue focussing on science, transparency and free speech. Chaired by Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, the lively debate featured Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust; George Monbiot, Guardian columnist; Baroness Onora O’Neill, ethics and political philosophy writer and House of Lords crossbencher, and Professor David Colquhoun, pharmacology professor and anti-pseudo-science champion. 

Science, much to its shock, has found itself at the centre of the free speech debate over the past few years. The libel actions against scientists and journalists, such as Richard Dawkins and Simon Singh, pitted the scientific community firmly on one side of the free speech debate, while the recent 'climategate’ controversy at the University of East Anglia raised questions about how the Freedom of Information act can be used to force the scientific community to reveal its data to the general public. The latter led to the question of whether we need amendments to the act to protect academic research.

While all of the panel agreed that openness in science was vital for progress—allowing others to check and challenge data, or have access to, for example, safety data for drugs—there were some disagreements on what form openness with the public should take. A recent proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information Act states that ‘the public authority must so far as reasonably practicable provide the information in a reusable electronic form’. It was this point which Baroness O’Neill focussed on to kick of the debate. She was keen for clarification on who it is the data in question should be reusable by—adequately technically competent individuals or only those with access to the custom-made programs used to compile the data? She made the point that by simply putting data into the public domain, scientists do not need to communicate with anyone. Rather, releasing huge amounts of sometimes incomprehensible data is a form of ‘quasi-communication’ of no benefit to anyone.

This was something which George Monbiot leapt upon, finding himself at the receiving end of Baroness O’Neill’s impassioned irritation. His question to her was who should decide whether the recipient was technically competent and at what level technical competence was to be determined? He was of the belief that raw data should be available to anyone so as to not raise suspicions as to the motives of the scientific community. This was further discussed by the other panellists, with Sir Mark Walport describing raw data as being a bit like raw sewage—harmful if incorrectly applied. He also pointed out that while putting out tonnes and tonnes of garbage and allowing people to get on with it is one option, the cost of this could be astronomical. Talking about the Wellcome Trust which he heads, he estimated that 1/10 of its research budget goes on free access to data published as a result of their grants to scientists. It was Baroness O’Neill who made the point that scientists need a publication schedule decided in advance and it needs to be included in their budget for the work in question.

The costs involved in accessing published scientific papers was touched upon, with George Monbiot calling academic publishers ‘economic parasites’—how are members of the public and journalists to read primary sources to formulate their opinions on research if it costs around £40 to access a paper? His comment that publishers were using others people’s hard work to make ridiculous profits raised the first round of applause from the audience. He pointed out that while scientists may well try to encourage others to ‘believe the evidence’ but this is difficult when accessing the evidence in question is extremely expensive to access and when science has become so specialised that a non-expert has to take the conclusions of a piece of research on trust.

The need to make a profit on, for example, drugs, raised some questions among the panel. Mark Walport pointed out that our economy is dependent on the Pharma industry and we need them for safe, available drugs. So expecting them to be completely transparent with their own data is difficult, even when they are benefitting from public data to make a profit. As he put it, ‘profits is OK, profiteering is not’. But what about the need for public scientists to maintain a competitive advantage over their rivals? What if the data was released to the entire world including corporations in jurisdictions that may not respect the licences governing use of the data? David Colquhoun touched on one of Baroness O’Neill’s question on when data should be released, discussing the ramifications of releasing data when all of the usefulness has not been extracted from it, allowing others to reap the benefits. It seemed to be the general consensus of the panel was that data should not be released until it was fully compiled rather than in dribs and drabs, although Colquhoun amusingly stated he was perfectly happy for anyone to see every draft and email involved in his own work.

Colquhoun’s own openness with his work was an interesting alternative to the image of a scientist often portrayed in the media as someone with their own motives, keeping secrets from the general public. But, unfortunately, it is clear that Colquhoun is not the absolute model for all scientists. He pointed out that clinical medicine is an area where a large amount of corruption has been seen, stating that this area is ‘not inherently corrupt, there is just more money to corrupt with.’ He mentioned the problems with the current rules on clinical trials where—although all trials have to registered, the results do not have to be published. This results in negative results staying hidden and failing to add to the scientific knowledge. 17% of cancer trials are not published, with university managers caring more about reputation than the truth. He was keen for a change in the current scientific culture to remove some of the pressure to publish; something which he believes is leading to a generation of ‘stiff scientists’. A more open dialogue between scientists and the public is perhaps required rather than the ‘cynical compliance’ described by Baroness O’Neill who did then go on to say that, while serious scientists do try to be open, some fields are still secretive. A question from the audience touched on an area where some secrecy is required—research involving personal data. While this sort of data is invaluable for compiling information on, for example, drug side-effects, stripping anything that allows an individual to be identified from data is difficult and expensive but necessary if the data is to be released.

Referring to ‘climategate’, George Monbiot described the scientific community as being completely unprepared for the resulting media onslaught. This disagreement focused around sceptic David Holland’s Freedom of Information act requests for access to climate data compiled by scientists, and blew up following the leaking of emails sent between the scientists in question. While Monbiot placed 95% of the blame for the clash between media and science on the shoulders of the media, he did feel that the scientific community had partially contributed to the hacking by giving the impression it had something to hide by not acting in an open manner.

The overall conclusions appeared to be that, while openness is vital and release of data into the public environment is important, the form that this data takes and who is able to use it is going to require further discussion. The Genome sequencing project was mentioned as an example of where the scientific community has done well at communicating their results with the public rather than simply releasing reams of raw data that no one else can understand. But the majority of the panel did agree that, should someone want the raw data, scientists should be ready to provide it. However, a change in scientific culture was mentioned on several occasions and it seems that, without a greater willingness of the scientific community to make their results—positive and negative—available to all, the current mistrust of science by some of the media and public will remain.

Image from: http://www.bokbluster.com/

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