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Who’s the Boss of Science?

November 30, 2009

[This is a cross-post from SoapBox over at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO).]

Thanks to the theft and publication of years worth of email from the Climate Research Unit (CRU), a major scientific center devoted to climate science, we now have an interesting picture of the at-times-questionable conduct of a number of top researchers in the field.The media and blogosphere are abuzz with commentary, analysis, and introspection from all corners. Initiatially there were two major narratives:

  • What this means for the debate over climate change itself. If you are a hardcore skeptic or conspiracy theorist, this is a eureka moment, revealing once and for all the vast global plot to pull one over on humanity. If you are a true believer, you cast the emails as a not-so-flattering view of the messy business of science, with no impact whatsoever on the credibility or veracity of human induced climate change. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.
  • Cause for revisiting the values and professional norms of scientific research, particularly peer review, transparency, and openness. In this somewhat more nuanced discussion, we see that the scientists, regardless of the quality of their work, have violated cherished norms by which science proceeds. Climate Audit, seen as a haven for skeptics, has been fighting for better data access for years. Real Climate argues that the community has made an effort, deflecting from accusations of data dumping and cover-up. As for peer review, Roger Pielke has a good post on the role of peer review, and the way in which climate change politics has led some scientists to stray from this traditional model:

The sustainability of climate science depends upon our ability to distinguish the health of the scientific enterprise [meaning in part the integrity of peer review] from the politics of climate change. The need to respond to climate change (which I support) does not justify sacrificing standards of scientific integrity for political ends. In fact, as the events of the past week show, when standards of scientific integrity are compromised, the political consequences can be double edged.

Yes, a lapse in scientific integrity is bad for science, but it’s worth thinking about why it’s also bad for us, the broader public. We need to remember that this work is done almost entirely on our dime. In that sense, the public more or less owns science, much the same way we own a democracy. The public invests in science for a variety of reasons, and they have a right to expect, not just results and advances, but that science fulfill the values that underpin our investment.
I would like to think that scientists who receive my tax dollars are conforming to the norms of peer review, and pursuing transparency and openness. As Mike Hulme points out over at DotEarth (my emphasis):

The key lesson to be learned is that not only must scientific knowledge about climate change be publicly owned — the I.P.C.C. does a fairly good job of this according to its own terms — but the very practices of scientific enquiry must also be publicly owned, in the sense of being open and trusted.

But I also want to be sure that they’re not fighting an ideological war from their cubicle at NASA (I suppose that sort of thing is reserved for the DOD and its contractors!). The Wall Street Journal discusses the efforts of scientists to delete emails about their research, along with other apparent attempts to withhold data:

these scientists feel the public doesn’t have a right to know the basis for their climate-change predictions, even as their governments prepare staggeringly expensive legislation in response to them.

However, we do now have hundreds of emails that give every appearance of testifying to concerted and coordinated efforts by leading climatologists to fit the data to their conclusions while attempting to silence and discredit their critics. In the department of inconvenient truths, this one surely deserves a closer look by the media, the U.S. Congress and other investigative bodies.

Whatever you think about climate change, and whatever you think about the motives of the WSJ, I hope that you agree with that point.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute provides another example. In a decidedly (and characteristically) unconstructive move, they announced that are suing NASA for their failure to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to the conduct of researchers who blog for Real Climate:

The information sought is directly relevant to the exploding “Climategate” scandal revealing document destruction, coordinated efforts in the U.S. and UK to avoid complying with both countries’ freedom of information laws, and apparent and widespread intent to defraud at the highest levels of international climate science bodies. …[This is] inappropriate behavior for a taxpayer-funded employee, particularly on taxpayer time.

Whatever headaches might have been temporarily avoided by evasion of the data issue up until now will surely be multiplied as a result of legal actions such as this. Obviously the motives of CEI are, as always, to detract from the credibility of climate science writ large. But that should not detract from the legitimacy of their core question, which relates to the conduct of public employees who should be accountable to taxpayers.

The CRU emails highlight the fact that climate science needs to get its house in order with respect to its own internal dynamics, restoring mutual respect and professional integrity. But it also needs to focus intently on its relationship to the public–not just in terms of communicating effectively to the masses, but also ensuring accountability to the boss: us.

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