PAUL D. THACKER
IN recent months, the Obama administration has been locked in a battle with Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who disputes the scientific consensus on climate change.
After the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a study last summer showing that climate change has continued unabated and perhaps accelerated over the last 15 years, Mr. Smith subpoenaed the emails of the agency’s scientists, citing whistle-blowers who say that the study had been rushed to publication.
NOAA has denied this request, and some within the scientific community have called Mr. Smith’s demands a witch hunt. But allowing agencies to keep secret the communications of scientists who work for the government sets a dangerous precedent. Some of what we know about abusive practices in science — whether it concerns tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or even climate change — has come from reading scientists’ emails.
Around 2007, for instance, the Senate Finance Committee sought emails and documents from several companies and agencies and about a dozen academic research centers as part of a wide-ranging investigation of possible corruption in medical research.
The committee later released a report detailing emails from scientists at GlaxoSmithKline showing that the company sought to intimidate academic researchers and hide the potential dangers of the diabetes drug Avandia. Internal communications by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration showed they had estimated Avandia was causing hundreds of heart attacks and instances of heart failure each month.
And if you think of all scientists at universities as pure at heart, think again.
As federal funding has fallen, some university scientists have allied themselves with corporate interests. In one instance, congressional investigators caught a scientist at the University of Texas leaking a study that he was peer reviewing for a medical journal to a corporate sponsor. Separate investigations by the Senate caught scientists allowing companies to edit their journal articles, prepare their testimony before the F.D.A. and secretly pay them to testify before the Senate. These investigations, based in part on a review of emails, helped catalyze reforms requiring the government and universities to become more transparent in their research practices.
Through freedom of information requests asking for scientists’ emails and documents, the public has learned, for instance, that Coca-Cola funded academics to play down the link between bad diets and obesity. Disclosure of emails also revealed that a prominent critic of climate change at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” to his corporate funders.
But don’t try to explain this to many scientists. The scientific community loves to toss around the term “transparency,” but it mostly remains a buzzword.
Last August, a colleague and I wrote an article on the importance of transparency in science for one of the blogs of the science journal publisher PLOS. The argument was fairly simple: 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. This might strike most people as reasonable.
One of our examples focused on a small nonprofit, U.S. Right to Know, which advocates for the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. The group filed Freedom of Information requests seeking the correspondence of scientists at public universities, some of whom wrote for a website backed by the agrochemical industry.
Our article promptly came under attack by several scientists and by the Union of Concerned Scientists. PLOS then removed our article from its site, though left the comments about it online. Never mind that the article had been peer-reviewed and promoted on social media by PLOS. In removing the article, PLOS explained that it “was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines.”
About two weeks later, this newspaper, in a Page 1 article, underscored the importance of access to scientists’ emails. Based in part on emails that had been sought by U.S. Right to Know, The Times reported that university scientists had become part of “an inner circle of industry consultants, lobbyists and executives who devised strategy on how to block state efforts to mandate G.M.O. labeling.” Similar articles appeared in The Boston Globe and in Bloomberg Business.
As interest groups on both the left and right increasingly try to politicize the scientific process, there’s little question that there will be misuse of the Freedom of Information laws that some journalists and watchdog organizations have used to uncover wrongdoing.
Scientists have been harassed in the past and no doubt will continue to be harassed in the future, just like other public servants. You can argue that Mr. Smith’s broadsides against NOAA are a case in point. In turn, scientists are free to fight these information requests or seek to narrow the scope of the inquiries to protect against what they believe threatens the integrity of the scientific process or chills research.
But 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.
After PLOS removed our article, a regular contributor to one of PLOS’s blogs requested that a university disclose the results of a recent study. The university rebuffed his request, claiming that disclosing the results could cause “harassment and distress to staff.”
NOAA, too, has found itself on both sides of the transparency debate.
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.
The emails released by the agency also included ones from NOAA’s own scientists. They complained to their superiors that the agency was misrepresenting hurricane science, and that NOAA had published inaccurate information on its website regarding links between hurricanes and climate change.
This information helped persuade congressional leaders to start investigations into the Bush administration’s distortion of federal research.
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.
Paul D. Thacker is a journalist and former investigator for the United States Senate.