Transparency and Protecting Scientists from Harassment Both Serve the Public Interest

What you’re getting into: 1200 words, a 4 to 6 minute read.

Paul Thacker argues in the New York Times that scientists should cough up their emails when politicians, advocacy groups and investigators request them. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but Thacker’s op-ed downplays the value of preventing scientific harassment and fails to make the case that disclosure is actually suffering as scientists defend themselves from various attacks on their work and reputations.

Disclosure exemptions exist for a reason, the argument is over how broad they should be

Thacker writes:

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.

That’s true, but figuring out what constitutes “documents related to the research” gets to the heart of political and legal disputes on this topic. Unfortunately, Thacker’s piece doesn’t delve into these distinctions, despite a growing body of legal rulings on this topic.

(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)
(Source and copyright: UCS/Morgan Swofford)

For instance, it’s hard to think of any reason taxpayer-funded data and research shouldn’t be public, except for narrow cases like protecting patient privacy or national security. There’s also broad agreement among scientists, advocates and journalists, that correspondence with a funder about the scope and nature of a project should be subject to disclosure.

But a public university scientist’s correspondence with a colleague in which they criticize a peer’s ideas or rate the quality of a grad student’s work, for instance, should not be disclosed, scientists and academic groups have argued. Making such correspondence public, they say, harms researchers’ ability to freely bat around ideas, thus infringing on their ability to do their jobs and their right to free inquiry.

For these reasons, among others, the Virginia Supreme Court blocked a fossil fuel funded non-profit from accessing years of scientific correspondence among climate researchers. The Court said that these exemptions would prevent “harm to university-wide research efforts…and impairment of free thought and expression.”

Exemptions to disclosure laws vary greatly by state, of course – Texas specifically exempts scientific data related to oil exploration – so what gets fairly exempted in one state might not in another, or at the federal level. But it’s clear that courts recognize that there’s significant public interest in preventing harassment and protecting academic freedom at public universities.

Scientists have argued for narrow exemptions that would not interfere with public interest disclosure

Thacker writes that:

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.

I can’t think of any scientific or academic society or group that has attempted to bar access to taxpayer-funded “scientific research.” We need to be clear here: these arguments are very rarely about access to things like scientific data. They are usually about things like funding and email correspondence.

Of course, we should sympathize with watchdog groups and journalists who already have far too tough a time getting public agencies to comply with FOIA requests. The Society of Professional Journalists, for instance, has a guide to helping reporters rebuff the many silly excuses they get, including from universities, that don’t want to disclose information which should obviously be public. But those problems with FOIA compliance are far broader than the narrow circumstances under which scientific societies and academic groups have asked for exemptions.

Further, it’s not clear that these narrow exemptions are causing the problems Thacker worries about. For instance, Thacker links to a recent freedom of information request that was rejected by a university on harassment grounds. Fair enough, but the rejection is from a British university, where freedom of information (and libel) laws are quite a bit different than they are in the United States. Further, the example involves a dispute among researchers for access to a data set, not an attempt by a politician, watchdog group or media outlet to get access to scientists’ inboxes.

Thacker also cites many examples of disclosure requests revealing corporate interference in science. Again, fair enough, but he doesn’t make the case that the narrow academic freedom exemptions scientists have asked for would have prevented any of those investigations from succeeding. Maybe they could, but there’s at least one high-profile example of an academic who tried to hide suspect financial ties by appealing to such exemptions and lost.

Protecting scientific inquiry from outside interference is consistent, not contradictory

Thacker says that scientists contradict themselves when they embrace transparency on one front, but not another. For instance, scientists have objected to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) demanding correspondence from NOAA scientists who authored a study that torpedoed a climate contrarian talking point. Thacker’s strongest argument is to point to another notable set of Congressional and FOIA-based inquiries targeting NOAA:

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.

Is this really a contradiction, though? Those investigations targeted political appointees in the administration who were silencing scientists. Disclosure of that political interference was clearly in the public interest. Rep. Smith’s investigation, by contrast, is much more muddled, especially since it started with questioning the validity of scientific research itself. In each case, scientists have supported efforts that prevent political interference in the scientific process.

Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith's investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)
Results of the climate science paper that have prompted Rep. Smith’s investigation. (Via the Guardian. Click for a blog on the study.)

Scientific institutions still need to be more transparent

These issues are complex and it makes sense that watchdogs like Thacker want to draw a hard line on disclosure laws. In fact, they absolutely should. We benefit when transparency advocates push for more sunlight. But trying to paint scientists as hypocritical on these issues does little to advance transparency. For his part, Thacker concludes his piece with this admonition:

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.

Scientists would argue that the public should be alarmed when politicians and advocates attempt to stymie scientific research they don’t like. The argument scientists and scientific societies have made, repeatedly, is that there is a public interest in disclosure and a public interest in protecting scientists from political interference and harassment. Thacker only acknowledges the former point, arguing that harassment is the price worth paying for fuller transparency.

Transparency advocates could do more to recognize that scientists are right to stand up against political interference in their work. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund detailed some of the costs of dealing with harassing requests in response to Thacker’s oped, too.

At the same time, scientists can do more to be transparent, too. As the public demands greater transparency from legacy institutions  – including government agencies and universities – scientists are in a position to push their institutions toward proactive disclosure, including data, methods, funding sources and funding agreements.

Regardless, these disputes over harassment, funding and email disclosure won’t stop any time soon. The best way for scientists – and the public – to enjoy the benefits of transparency and freedom from political interference is to embrace proactive disclosure. If everyone in science was more transparent, the outliers would stick out like sore thumbs, and scientists would be smart to get out ahead of public demands for more transparency.

(I wrote about these issues last year when I was working at – and blogging for – the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

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2 comments

  1. I want to set aside the substantive points above for a second because Paul Thacker is getting ready to criticize me and my former colleagues at UCS again, this time related to the retraction of a PLOS blog he co-authored with Charles Seife in August.

    I already responded to most of their arguments and inaccurate characterizations of UCS’s work here: http://blog.ucsusa.org/aaron-huertas/transparency-is-great-harassment-is-worth-preventing-a-response-to-paul-thacker-and-charles-seife-845

    Following the publication and retraction of that blog, Thacker began pinging me with accusatory messages on Twitter and calling me out in BCC’ed email blasts that he sent to colleagues, supervisors, and journalists. He also used those email blasts to encourage journalists to write critical stories about UCS.

    It’s among the weirdest things I’ve dealt with in my career. As you can imagine, Thacker’s messages quickly became tiresome, so I blocked them. It was clear that he was more interested in baiting me and my colleagues than understanding UCS’s work, especially since he had failed to follow up on multiple offers to meet and discuss his concerns.

    So when I saw a message from Thacker in my Gmail yesterday in which he asked me several leading questions about the August PLOS retraction for a forthcoming post of his own, I figured it would be best to not respond to him directly and instead lay things out here so others can read and judge for themselves.

    I think PLOS was wrong to retract Thacker and Seife’s blog back in August and I never asked them to do so. Neither did anybody else at UCS. I was actually in the middle of discussing corrections to their post with an editor there when I learned about the retraction. To be clear, I did ask for many corrections – I thought the piece was deeply problematic and poorly sourced – and the editor and I were going back and forth about which claims were points of fact and which were simply Thacker and Seife’s opinions. Regardless, PLOS should have given everyone a better explanation for why they retracted the piece. I also expressed my disappointment with the retraction to the editor with whom I was corresponding.

    Before the retraction, Thacker also kept trying to call me out for not posting a comment on the PLOS blog, as if that was the only valid way to respond to him. That was a head-scratcher since I had already written an in-depth response on UCS’s blog. As I wrote at the time in response to Thacker’s email blasts, “I haven’t done so because I’m waiting for them to get back to us about errors in the original post.” (http://blog.ucsusa.org/aaron-huertas/transparency-is-great-harassment-is-worth-preventing-a-response-to-paul-thacker-and-charles-seife-845#update)

    Michael Eisen, a biologist and PLOS founder, has also faced unfounded accusations from Thacker on Twitter regarding the retraction. He’s a lot more blunt than I am: https://twitter.com/mbeisen/status/686319086091935744

    Keith Kloor, a writer, has had similar experiences with Thacker. His account here is consistent with my recollection of events: http://www.keithkloor.com/?p=14917

    I hate to delve into something so negative again – science communication can actually be fun, I swear! – but I wanted to put this out there for the record. While Thacker’s substantive arguments about transparency are worth responding to, he obviously has an axe to grind when it comes to me and UCS.

    Naturally, this topic and related issues about GMOs and biotech companies tend to generate a lot of interest on social media. If anyone cares, I might be able to make some time to respond outside of East Coast working hours, but can’t promise anything today.

    More reading – Orac tackles Paul Thacker’s NYT piece over at Science Blogs. He also writes about Thacker blowing off a writer and professor who asked him a pretty understandable follow up question.

    It looks like Thacker also had a dispute with an outlet he used to write for in 2007 and the Society of Environmental Journalists published his take and his editor’s response in their newsletter. The editor’s response is consistent with what I’ve seen of Thacker’s work.

    March 28, 2016 – Last week, Thacker sent out a blast email accusing me of “criticizing reporters for using FOIA.” This is obviously a false statement, which probably explains why he didn’t cite anything to back up his claim. Previously, he shared Pielke Jr.’s message, described below, on Twitter, but seems to have deleted it. He also referred to the blog post above as “gibberish.”

    April 7, 2016 – Thacker emailed some folks to accuse me of working on Pielke Jr.’s behalf, which is certainly ironic given Pielke Jr.’s antipathy toward me! This incident reminded me of when Paul first started trying to intimidate me more than a year ago. He claimed that I was embarrassing myself in front of the White House, high-powered lawyers, and other seemingly powerful people. I asked him if he could name any of these people; he couldn’t. Anyway, I live and work in DC, so I’m used to seeing this kind of bluster from time to time, but I suspect that many people whom Paul has targeted over the years might assume that he’s more powerful or more connected than he actually is. Here’s the thing: people with meaningful connections to powerful people tend not to brag about those connections and if they do, they’re usually a little more specific.

    I hope publishing this is useful to other people whom Paul targets with these rather silly and crass tactics.

  2. Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been misrepresenting some of my correspondence with him and sharing it online without my permission.

    Here’s what’s up:

    Last year, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent letters to several academics asking for their funding info and materials related to their testimony, including Pielke Jr. Journalists and pundits were quick to draw parallels to investigations of climate scientists from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).

    There were some key substantive differences that were easy to overlook, especially around asking for funding info vs. demanding certain types of documents, but the biggest difference was that Rep. Grijalva limited the scope and scale of his investigation when the scientific community spoke out in response.

    At the time, Pielke Jr. contacted me to ask what UCS was doing about the investigation. I pointed him to what the organization had written so far, told him I’d be interested to hear how he and his university were responding, that academics in his situation shouldn’t necessarily trust their own university’s counsel and that I’d advised other researchers in similar situations to obtain their own. I also sent him UCS’s guide to responding to scrutiny of one’s work.

    This is all stuff I’d said to other researchers before, as I noted in the email. Never the less, he would later describe this email as me telling him to “lawyer up.”

    To be clear, he used quote marks when he made that claim. Here’s the thing: *I never used those words,* nor did I tell him to do anything of the sort and certainly not with such a harsh, dismissive tone.

    One of my former colleagues brought this up with him yesterday and Pielke Jr. repeated the claim again, this time without quote marks. He also posted a partial excerpt from one of my emails, which he never asked my permission to post.

    Here’s the exchange: https://twitter.com/halpsci/status/711669588182695936

    I recall Pielke Jr. emailing me at the time. He and I exchanged a few emails. I figured he might misrepresent them, so I was cognizant of that at the time, but I also thought he deserved a response. At worst, I thought he’d complain that UCS wasn’t helping him out in the way that he wanted the organization to. At best, I figured we could actually have a productive conversation, (not that I was going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen). What I didn’t expect was for him to make up a quote from me.

    He asked me to justify a description of his work on UCS’s blog as being “critical of mainstream climate science.” I told him I wasn’t interested in rehashing the many years of disputes he’s had over this point. I also recall him writing that he was disappointed in UCS and sharing a very negative interpretation of my email to him. I recall emailing him back to say that his interpretation was unjustified. He never wrote back. So it goes.

    There was a lot more happening at the time, but I didn’t discuss it with Pielke Jr. nor will I given his propensity for misrepresenting my views. So when he makes claims about what UCS did or didn’t do at time, perhaps he should consider the limits of his own knowledge.

    My other interactions with Pielke Jr. – which have been online and over the phone – have been similarly frustrating, though at least they haven’t involved him misrepresenting my words in public.

    As with Paul Thacker, I suppose I’ll no longer privately communicate with Roger Pielke Jr.; I simply can’t trust either of them to accurately represent what I say or write.

    March 21 – This is so lame I hesitate to even include it, but might as well be comprehensive. Looks like Pielke Jr. has this to say: https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/711670598913556480. I think he’s confusing his dispute with Holdren with his dispute with a bunch of climate bloggers during his time at 538: https://twitter.com/aaronhuertas/status/552148858533588993. I do not recall him approaching UCS for assistance during either of those episodes, but I might not remember or he might have approached someone else. In any case, being targeted for investigation from a politician is a world apart from engaging in public disputes with policymakers, bloggers and media outlets.

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