Catalyst Spring 2016

Transparency Isn’t a License to Bully



By Michael Halpern

Transparency in government helps us expose inappropriate influence in science and policy making. The public should know who funds a scientist’s work, and whether strings are attached to that funding. We should be able to determine whether universities and governments are facilitating independent research or being co-opted by private interests.

Increasingly, however, industries, activists, and politicians of all stripes are subverting the goal of transparency, exploiting divergent state open-records laws and issuing subpoenas that demand exhaustive records of emails, peer review comments, and draft papers from scientists in an effort to manufacture controversy about the scientists’ work and, by extension, their field of research. Unfortunately, attacking the scientists who produce a politically inconvenient study can be an effective technique for confusing the public and chilling scientific discourse.

Bankrupt coal producer Alpha Natural Resources recently sued West Virginia University, for instance, to gain access to hundreds of thousands of documents created by a professor who studies the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. And Texas Representative Lamar Smith, chair of the House Science Committee, recently subpoenaed the emails and draft papers of government climate scientists whose analyses he found irksome.

These actions abuse well-intentioned transparency and accountability laws. Not only do they waste time and resources, they can also delay needed science-based policy decisions, and discourage the candid conversations scientists need to conduct in the course of their research.

A Sensible Path Forward

Fortunately, transparency can be achieved without harassment. The Union of Concerned Scientists is leading efforts to better define conflicts of interest and develop common disclosure standards that are fair to all researchers. We also need greater clarity about what constitutes independent science so we have a shared set of rules and so it becomes more difficult for scientific evidence to be misused to justify a particular policy outcome.

Balancing scientific freedom and accountability will protect scientists, improve public understanding of science, and help ensure that government policies are aligned with the public interest. In the meantime, UCS will continue to shine a light on the harassment of scientists and provide them with the tools they need to protect themselves. Learn more about our efforts.

Michael Halpern is a program manager for strategy and innovation in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Read more from Michael on our blog, The Equation.