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Transparency and Protecting Scientists from Harassment Both Serve the Public Interest

Transparency and Protecting Scientists from Harassment Both Serve the Public Interest

What you’re getting into: 1200 words, a 4 to 6 minute read.

Paul Thacker argues in the New York Times that scientists should cough up their emails when politicians, advocacy groups and investigators request them. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but Thacker’s op-ed downplays the value of preventing scientific harassment and fails to make the case that disclosure is actually suffering as scientists defend themselves from various attacks on their work and reputations.

Disclosure exemptions exist for a reason, the argument is over how broad they should be

Thacker writes:

When research is paid for by the public, the public has a right to demand transparency and to have access to documents related to the research.

That’s true, but figuring out what constitutes “documents related to the research” gets to the heart of political and legal disputes on this topic. Unfortunately, Thacker’s piece doesn’t delve into these distinctions, despite a growing body of legal rulings on this topic.

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(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)

(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)[/caption]

For instance, it’s hard to think of any reason taxpayer-funded data and research shouldn’t be public, except for narrow cases like protecting patient privacy or national security. There’s also broad agreement among scientists, advocates and journalists, that correspondence with a funder about the scope and nature of a project should be subject to disclosure.

But a public university scientist’s correspondence with a colleague in which they criticize a peer’s ideas or rate the quality of a grad student’s work, for instance, should not be disclosed, scientists and academic groups have argued. Making such correspondence public, they say, harms researchers’ ability to freely bat around ideas, thus infringing on their ability to do their jobs and their right to free inquiry.

For these reasons, among others, the Virginia Supreme Court blocked a fossil fuel funded non-profit from accessing years of scientific correspondence among climate researchers. The Court said that these exemptions would prevent “harm to university-wide research efforts…and impairment of free thought and expression.”

Exemptions to disclosure laws vary greatly by state, of course — Texas specifically exempts scientific data related to oil exploration — so what gets fairly exempted in one state might not in another, or at the federal level. But it’s clear that courts recognize that there’s significant public interest in preventing harassment and protecting academic freedom at public universities.

Scientists have argued for narrow exemptions that would not interfere with public interest disclosure

Thacker writes that:

the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.

I can’t think of any scientific or academic society or group that has attempted to bar access to taxpayer-funded “scientific research.” We need to be clear here: these arguments are very rarely about access to things like scientific data. They are usually about things like funding and email correspondence.

Of course, we should sympathize with watchdog groups and journalists who already have far too tough a time getting public agencies to comply with FOIA requests. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has a guide to helping reporters rebuff the many silly excuses they get, including from universities, that don’t want to disclose information which should obviously be public. But those problems with FOIA compliance are far broader than the narrow circumstances under which scientific societies and academic groups have asked for exemptions.

Further, it’s not clear that these narrow exemptions are causing the problems Thacker worries about. For instance, Thacker links to a recent freedom of information request that was rejected by a university on harassment grounds. Fair enough, but the rejection is from a British university, where freedom of information (and libel) laws are quite a bit different than they are in the United States. Further, the example involves a dispute among researchers for access to a data set, not an attempt by a politician, watchdog group or media outlet to get access to scientists’ inboxes.

Thacker also cites many examples of disclosure requests revealing corporate interference in science. Again, fair enough, but he doesn’t make the case that the narrow academic freedom exemptions scientists have asked for would have prevented any of those investigations from succeeding. Maybe they could, but there’s at least one high-profile example of an academic who tried to hide suspect financial ties by appealing to such exemptions and lost.

Protecting scientific inquiry from outside interference is consistent, not contradictory

Thacker says that scientists contradict themselves when they embrace transparency on one front, but not another. For instance, scientists have objected to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) demanding correspondence from NOAA scientists who authored a study that torpedoed a climate contrarian talking point. Thacker’s strongest argument is to point to another notable set of Congressional and FOIA-based inquiries targeting NOAA:

About 10 years ago, the agency released emails showing that officials in the administration of George W. Bush squashed a NOAA statement and that Bush political appointees were selecting which NOAA scientists could speak to the media based on their willingness to deny connections between climate change and hurricane activity.

Is this really a contradiction, though? Those investigations targeted political appointees in the administration who were silencing scientists. Disclosure of that political interference was clearly in the public interest. Rep. Smith’s investigation, by contrast, is much more muddled, especially since it started with questioning the validity of scientific research itself. In each case, scientists have supported efforts that prevent political interference in the scientific process.

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Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith's investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)

Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith’s investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)[/caption]

Scientific institutions still need to be more transparent

These issues are complex and it makes sense that watchdogs like Thacker want to draw a hard line on disclosure laws. In fact, they absolutely should. We benefit when transparency advocates push for more sunlight. But trying to paint scientists as hypocritical on these issues does little to advance transparency. For his part, Thacker concludes his piece with this admonition:

Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are really not for transparency at all. The public should be alarmed.

Scientists would argue that the public should be alarmed when politicians and advocates attempt to stymie scientific research they don’t like. The argument scientists and scientific societies have made, repeatedly, is that there is a public interest in disclosure and a public interest in protecting scientists from political interference and harassment. Thacker only acknowledges the former point, arguing that harassment is the price worth paying for fuller transparency.

Transparency advocates could do more to recognize that scientists are right to stand up against political interference in their work. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund detailed some of the costs of dealing with harassing requests in response to Thacker’s oped, too.

At the same time, scientists can do more to be transparent, too. As the public demands greater transparency from legacy institutions — including government agencies and universities — scientists are in a position to push their institutions toward proactive disclosure, including data, methods, funding sources and funding agreements.

Regardless, these disputes over harassment, funding and email disclosure won’t stop any time soon. The best way for scientists — and the public — to enjoy the benefits of transparency and freedom from political interference is to embrace proactive disclosure. If everyone in science was more transparent, the outliers would stick out like sore thumbs, and scientists would be smart to get out ahead of public demands for more transparency.

(I wrote about these issues last year when I was working at — and blogging for — the Union of Concerned Scientists.)