Unedited version of article for Euroscientist published 20th Dec, 2011
The Index on Censorship is a leading UK organisation promoting freedom of expression, foundered in 1972. But I’ll be honest, as a physicist, it had been off my radar until this month. I feel I must first apologise for my ignorance. Particularly as it is now hosting an incredibly timely digital debate on science and transparency, which kicked off at the start of December with a panel event on data entitled ‘Is transparency bad for science?’.
There was a heated clash of intellects during this event which has now been viewed a few thousand times on YouTube. Two of the panel attendees George Monbiot and Baroness Onora O’Neill, locked heads over a discussion about the freedom of information act and got us thinking: how do you deal with the problem of releasing data to a non-expert, when there is a potential for misinterpretation?
O’Neill argued that there must be an accountability somewhere that ensures when data is released that it is accompanied by a comprehensive explanation and metadata. But then arose the idea of ensuring a ‘technically competent person receives the data’, and Monbiot battled back furiously. His concern: who then decides who is or isn’t ‘technically competent’. The whole debate went rather off track at this point as O’Neill felt personally attacked, and Monbiot felt unable to clarify her meaning.
But still, I think this clash illustrates the crux of the problem with openness – and therein, highlights it’s potential to be bad for science. It is a subtle, yet important line we must negotiate: how do we ensure we are open to all and not institutionally elitist, while still ensuring data is not misinterpreted?
O’Neill summed it up with:
Transparency has few enemies, but is surprisingly limited in its aims. It is an effective antidote to secrecy, but usually inadequate for genuine communication.
It all got me thinking. This stuff is really important. But here I am writing about it, knowing that I never studied anything to do with freedom of expression, legislation, – even ethics – formally beyond secondary level until I did my teacher training. So I’d actually like to ask a related question: are we OK with graduate training in physics being so barren of these important learning’s? Particularly when so many physics graduates are subsequently called upon in their careers to be politically and socially influential?
At a junction where themes of openness and transparency are critical to scientific progress, not to mention the public understanding of science and the political agenda; do we actually have a cultural framework in place within physics – academic science as a whole even – to address these questions as a community?
On the Saturday night during the same week of the panel debate I went along to a comedy club to watch the talented comedian Ava Vidal. She was heckled while talking about race with: “there is no such thing as race any more”, to which she replied: “yes there is, and I am allowed to talk about it”. The night made me feel incredibly grateful to live in a society where there are individuals like Ava committed to sharing their perspectives and experiences, and to defending their right to speak about them – but the room (including myself), remained silent in her defence. It emphasised for me words from Index on Censorship editor Jo Glanville in New Scientist early this month:
…all too often the fight for free speech depends on the courage of individuals.
It’s true where race is concerned, and I was surprised to understand that it is absolutely true where science is concerned too.
Jo writes further in her article about the evidence which exists of bullying and harassment towards science writers and scientists by individuals, interest groups and industry. She advocates that “both the law and the culture within science establishment have to change in order to safeguard open debate”.
To me this all sounds rather worrying.
Thrown into the mix is my own particular set of censorship issues: I cannot talk about aspects of my work. I work in the Defence and Nuclear sectors, and I am bound by contractual obligation to my clients as well as the Official Secrecy Act. I certainly believe there are cases where transparency is not be the best course of action, but I also think we need to consider carefully what we lose when we close things down.
What do you think? Is openness and transparency bad for science? Or is openness and transparency a right we should fight to protect?