Deborah Cohen: Censorship and transparency in science

Deborah Cohen Raw data is a bit like raw sewage—or so says Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust—in it you might find the odd nugget in amongst the garbage.  His comment came at a debate hosted by Index on Censorship on transparency in science, pegged to a publication that deals with this very issue. It’s certainly a hot topic in all walks of life with the clamour for more information to be put into the public domain. Even representatives of the drug industry—not historically noted for openness and disclosure—are arguing that the more science in the public domain, the better.

And in 2000, a desire for increased transparency across public life was really brought into effect. The Freedom of Information Act— a hard won piece of legislation by journalists and democracy campaigners—was passed, which Tony Blair later went on to say he was a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” to have let pass.

Journalists he thought, were using it more than “the people”–but increasingly academic researchers are turning to it to answer their questions.

Blair is in venerable scientific company. Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society, complained early this year that FOI legislation was being used in a vexatious way to harass climate scientists, who are being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research.

And the law might well be extended. Section 6 of the Protection of Freedoms legislation—that encompasses the Freedom of Information Act—is currently in the Lords for debate having “glided through” the House of Commons. This will allow reusable electronic datasets to be available upon request from publicly funded bodies, including universities.

Crossbench peer Baroness Onora O’Neill— the closest the Index of Censorship could find to having a total transparency perspective—has started to ring alarm bells. She suggested this Bill failed to take into account the specific challenges posed by scientific data. Only “technically competent” people should be able to request such data—although who should be the arbiter of technical competence was unclear. “By whom should the data be reusable? And when should it be possible to request it?” she asked.

It’s a view dismissed by George Monbiot as patrician—it’s not for us to decide who is technically competent or not, he says. Misuse of data is not for us to decide. A lack of transparency and a refusal of data will only fuel suspicion.
And science does have specific reasons to engender suspicion—undeclared conflicts of interest, ghostwriting, failure to publish negative results and academic publishers putting up pay wall barriers between scientists and the public undermines trust in scientists–yet with the increasing super-specialisation of science, trust is essential.  The increasing complexity means that the methods section of studies becomes difficult to understand, so you have to trust that the scientist has got it right, Monbiot said.

“What do we mean by data?” Walport asked. Refined data is not necessarily good if you don’t have a methods section. “We need to know what one means when you say making data available.” It’s easy, he says, to churn out tons of garbage and let people get on with it.

Datasets that have public utility—such as clinical trial data and perhaps data on the safety of materials used in aircrafts—should be made available. But data used for private benefit and email exchanges are off limits, he said—although this would not have gained traction if this exemption applied to civil servants and those in government, who need to be fully accountable to the public. And perhaps, there is an imbalance. If those funded by the public purse have to share their data, then what about the private sector who might supply services or goods to the public?

This might well impact on the NHS, said Professor David Colquhoun. Private providers to the NHS should be able to be scrutinised in much the same way as public bodies and this should come as part of their contract. His belief is total openness. “If they want my data they can have it,” he says—pointing out that some of what he does is incredibly complex.

Indeed, Nurse’s organisation has been seeking views on openness in their study “Science is a Public Enterprise,” which will make recommendations as to how to best to implement the opening up scientific information.

A mission statement on the Royal Society’s website already perhaps gives an indication about their views: “Open access to scientific information is not in practice an unqualified good. A commitment to open science does not imply openness to everything, to anyone or for any purpose. Open science should be bounded by considerations of quality, legitimate commercial interests, privacy and security.”

But what makes science exceptional? If we demand transparency in some parts of public life why not all? Questions that will undoubtedly be debated once the slow moving scientific community has come to understand how the upcoming amendments to the Freedom of Information legislation will affect them.

Deborah Cohen is investigations editor, BMJ/