Why Science Transparency Matters

Getting science right matters. We live in a wondrous age in which a breathtaking understanding of our universe is possible. We understand the nature of life though DNA and how structures arise through protein construction during embryonic development. We are discovering possibly inhabitable worlds at distances measured in light years. We are discovering what makes forest ecosystems tick. We have mapped the interior of our own planet and explored its oceans from deep under its waters and scanned them from above with orbiting satellites.

This is not to say that science will answer all our questions, or provide all sources of value in all areas of meaning. But ignore it at your peril. It is typically ignored when its findings grate against deeply entrenched beliefs that people have refused to update in light of more recent and more well-grounded information. It is ignored when its findings chafe against political, religious, or economic dogma. For example, climate change. The science on climate change is as strong as any science we have, although the active obfuscation campaign by special interests makes this less than apparent to those not reading the science literature and getting their information from other sources. At BYU this semester we have a special seminar lecture series on the environment trying to educate the public on the science behind the claims of climate change and its implications for the humanities and other disciplines. But this post is not about climate change.

Recently, President Trump issued a media blackout to the EPA, this after nominating notable climate change deniers to head the agency. This has had a chilling effect on scientists around the world. I worked on an EPA project during my graduate studies at NC State on a project called EMAP in which we were trying to look at the health of the nation’s ecosystems. I was part of the Agroecosystem team. The science being done there was first rate, and the men and women I worked with were exciting examples of how the government can support and engage in good science. These recent actions however send a clear message of how the government aims to control the message of this institution, even if the ban is temporary as is claimed. But this post is not about the EPA.

This post is about American leadership in science. In order for science to flourish it requires transparency. Science strives to be non-political and to explore the world as we find it. Of course individual scientists have the same weakness, political and otherwise, that define what it means to be human, but it works very hard to find and control those biases. It has procedures in place to expose and illuminate those things to the extent that is humanly possible. I’ve written elsewhere about the power of its tools. One of those tools, one of its critical tools, is transparency. When science becomes politicized and transparency goes it will fail.

Take the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lysenko was a Russian agriculturist. He became a superstar in the Communist Party and rose quickly to positions of power and authority. He became a favorite of Joseph Stalin, and scientists who thought Lysenko might be leading things in the wrong direction were reprimanded and criticized. He became the powerful leader of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and actively pursued ‘correcting’ those scientists who were buying into Western ideas about genetics (and by correcting I mean, purging, imprisoning, and killing those who would not come around). And what were those ideas? Mendelian genetics. Lysenko was a Lamarckian. He held the long discredited idea that organisms could acquire the characteristics they obtained in life and pass them on to their offspring. And why did he hold this view? Was he was convinced after carefully weighing the evidence? No. Were genuine scientific debates at stake? No. He held these views because they fit in with theories and prejudices that he thought more compatible with Lenin’s version of Marxism; and there was no fact, no kind, nor weight of evidence that he would have accepted to displace those views.

As a result, Soviet genetics was fifty years behind Western science. Key aspects of the green revolution, without the perspectives of the Darwinian and Mendelian synthesis, were missed under Lysenko’s watch.

America is poised to end up the same way if we do not tell let science tell the best story it can of how the material world works. This science includes climate change and other sciences that some groups are trying to politicize and deny. All political parties have a vested interest in letting scientists do their job. If climate change is wrong it will not be the politicians who figure it out (although politicians of all parties will be critical in designing policies to handle the effects of climate change), it will be through the careful gathering and exploration of the data by people best trained to look at it. All in a climate of transparency.

Comments

  1. Agreed. Although the phrase “spitting into the wind” comes to mind.
    Another part of or way to describe tension with transparent science is that science done right is a lot of negatives. Positive theories and explanations tend to be tentative–until improved upon–and most of what we know with confidence is what’s not true, what doesn’t work, what fails the test. From a certain point of view it looks like a whole lot of calling out untruths, a currently disfavored activity.

  2. A fascinating (and horrifying) post by Ben Park today that complements yours very well: https://professorpark.wordpress.com/2017/01/25/trump_evangelicalism/

    “When faced with new challenges from “secular” truths regarding history, biology, psychology, and other fields, charismatic leaders developed alternate realms that reaffirmed more conservative “truths.” Those who pushed things like evolution could therefore be tactically disarmed because their arguments were based on a different set of values: their ideas were not “anointed” by God, and thus dismissed.

    The result of this [was] the rise of anti-intellectual, populist, and charismatic leaders who, though lacking in credentials and credibility, could draw an immense following. . . . These and other individuals capitalized on this artificial bubble that shields them from actual research, peer-review, and criticism. They have made a successful career selling “alternative facts.””

  3. it's a series of tubes says:
  4. Deborah Christensen says:

    As a nurse practitioner the silencing of the EPA is concerning. I rely on the CDC for info all the time. Sometimes I disagree with their recommendations because it conflicts with my religious beliefs. However, I know that they are doing the best they can with the science they have so far. And patients shouldn’t make their healthcare decisions based on my religion, only facts and their religion.
    Also, is the EPA blackout the reason for a scientists march?

  5. More. This just in. This isn’t how peer review works. 

  6. That “peer review” update makes a truly horrifying development in Trump voters’ campaign against science even worse. Submitting science to the propaganda department before it can be published or presented. How can this be America? How did we let the Religious Right do this to us?

  7. The trouble with the religious right didn’t come in a vacuum. We’ve had a problem for a good number of years of studies being published without peer review, allowing people to take any number of positions, even positions not taken by the original papers.

    Also, for the past 40 years (or so), there’s been a “boy who cried wolf” mentality about doomsday science findings. People don’t believe climate change now because it’s seen as the disaster du jour.

    That said, the government taking absolute control over -anything- is a bad idea. Regulate and give funding help nudge things along, but this is like “fine, i’ll do it myself”, which seems to be creating more of the big government people keep saying they want less of.

  8. Also, for the past 40 years (or so), there’s been a “boy who cried wolf” mentality about doomsday science findings.

    People who argue this point conveniently ignore that problems like the ozone layer and acid rain went away because of massive interventions like the Montreal Framework outlawing CFCs and the Clean Air Act Amendments. The ozone layer didn’t just heal itself, and acid rain didn’t go away on its own.

    There is no incentive to stop anyone from inflicting external costs on the world in the absence of a mechanism to force internalization.

  9. john f: I have long thought that every American university should have a mandatory course on the history of totalitarian movements in the 20th century. One section on Nazi Germany, one section on the USSR (and particularly the rule of Stalin), and one section on the People’s Republic of China (and particularly the Cultural Revolution). Until recently I’d primarily been concerned with the willingness of student protesters to engage in rhetoric dangerously similar to that of Stalin’s purges and the madness of the Cultural Revolution, but the pendulum can swing awfully quickly…

  10. Sidebottom says:

    The idea that “science strives to be non-political” is complete hooey – my long career as a scientist strongly suggests otherwise. As a grad student I worked on a project that was initially funded under the Office of Naval Research but remade to meet the demands of a Renewable Energy Grant when Clinton took office. Under GWB it became a DARPA program. Our project was more or less pure research, and my adviser was adept at adjusting research focus or wording of grants to maintain continuity. My colleagues working in more politicized fields, esp. those tied to the DOE, weren’t so lucky. The funding bodies largely dictate research priorities – ‘transparency’ and ‘freedom to publish’ don’t mean anything if you can’t get your research funded in the first place.

  11. APM yes those are great examples of nonpartisan solutions to complex problems. Until the reality of climate change is acknowledged we can’t even begin the conversion.

    “The idea that “science strives to be non-political” is complete hooey.” Bad examples, don’t negotiate the strong efforts to try to correct problems. And can you name a human institution that does better? Or has stronger checks to try to correct the problems it finds? Science relies on many eyes looking at the same thing. Transparency is the first step to allowing those eyes to do their job. You brand of cynicism about science is what feeds the anti-science movements in this country. I don’t know what kind of scientist you are, but if you really don’t think you should try to give unbiased and accurate results you are part of the problem. Trying to find funding is a problem but chasing funding means that you propose good science, and yes it does focus on societal needs many times, rightly so, however, if I’m doing basic research that might fit under multiple domains, and I approach multiple domains for funding it doesn’t mean I’m compromising my science.

  12. I think Sidebottom is conflating science funding with science. Science (as a system of making objective observations about the world) strives to be separate from politics. Science funding, on the other hand, is inherently political and scientists must be adept at changing with the current political winds in order to keep their labs funded.

  13. sidebottom says:

    I’m not conflating anything. I’m saying the two are inseparably connected. Funding bodies determine what questions science is permitted to ask which affects the available body of knowledge. Moreover, funding bodies rarely approve additional funds to reproduce earlier studies. Outside of perhaps a few pure research efforts in the physical sciences no scientific endeavor meets the ideal held up in this thread.

  14. Sidebottom says:

    To SteveP’s point more directly, there may not be a better system but we needn’t delude ourselves that the current system is somehow beyond reproach. In many fields objectivity rules the day but the closer one gets to money or power the more the science is prone to distortion.

  15. A Fellow Traveler on the Path says:

    To SteveP @ 5:35 pm

    Seems like this could set the stage for an American samizdat for scientists. It allowed a lot of Soviets to publish the unpublishable, both in communist countries and the world.

  16. “system but we needn’t delude ourselves that the current system is somehow beyond reproach.” Did some one make that claim? Your beating a straw horse.

  17. “In many fields objectivity rules the day but the closer one gets to money or power the more the science is prone to distortion.” You’re not really in science are you? NASA, NOAH, NIH = big money and is some of the best science we have.

  18. Thanks Steve. I worry for my own federal science funding. It is worrisome to think of how science is being treated.

  19. Rhymes with Clockdart says:

    But does it matter at much as comment/username moderation transparency? If the scientists are as petty or thin skinned as the comment moderators here, everyone should be worried.

    It’s revealing the degree to which polite, anonymous dissent is deemed as threatening and worthy of censoring.

  20. To Sidebottom’s point – it’s pretty silly to make a blanket statement that the grant process politicizes the entire process. Take a look at the abstracts in Environmental Science and Technology, and tell me how characterizing arctic dissolved organic matter serves the purpose of any political party or agency.

    I got my master’s in environmental geochemistry a few years ago. Our projects were dictated by what equipment we already had, what research we could build on, and what questions we thought were interesting. Then those questions were tailored to fit the grant proposal process and the mission of whatever agency we were begging for money. The questions didn’t change but the way we framed them did – especially the way we framed the “broader impacts.” Of course, once the funding was secured, the research questions almost always changed. Field work doesn’t work out, equipment breaks, or a weird result takes you in a new direction. At that point all you care about is publishing.

  21. Geoff - Aus says:

    The Australian of the year is a stem cell scientist Alan Mackay-Sim. Science is still valued in Australia, though we do have some climate change deniers in the government.

  22. Kristine N says:

    “If the scientists are as petty or thin skinned as the comment moderators here, everyone should be worried”

    So, there’s this thing called gaslighting…

    Scientists are human beings. Some are petty, some are thin-skinned just like in any group of people. As a group scientists hold themselves to strict and high ethical standards. We argue *incessantly* which is a big part of why we’re so sure when we can get a bunch of us to agree that it probably is the correct answer. Scientists are an ornery lot who like to be the smartest person in the room and like to prove it by proving other people wrong. (We’re fun at parties) The fact that scientists agree on climate change really is meaningful because we, as a group, don’t like to agree. Try to get us to agree on what should be done about climate change and you’ll get a good idea of how incredibly diverse opinions are among scientists.

    I just wish we could get to that point of the discussion. It’s seriously disheartening that we’re apparently moving back to “this isn’t happening” world.

  23. Rachel, exactly!

    Geoff-Aus, There are a few climate deniers in most countries, but they are rarer outside the US. It’s one of the few nations where it is widely believed to be a hoax. It’s embarrassing that Russia and China are moving forward on the issue and the US lags behind when it ought to be talking a leadership role given the amount of carbon it produces.

    Kristine, that’s the funny thing about those who believe it is a hoax, you are exactly right, finding flaws in another’s data, analysis, experiment, or models is the bread and butter of science. A conspiracy among 1000’s of scientists would be like trying to produce an opera with a cast of 10,000 beagles and 200,000 squirrels on stage the entire performance. Scientists are a contentious bunch because you really do need to make a splash and the easiest way to make a splash is to find mistakes in work and propose innovative solutions.

  24. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    I have been in biomedical science since about 2000. I think there is some validity in what sidebottom is saying. To say that the funding process politicizes things is not to say that every publication serves a political agenda. It does however influence directions that research moves in over large time scales. On the other hand I’m not sure I could devise a better system. The NIH limits politics in funding to some degree by having grants scored by groups of scientists rather than by political entities. The latter have influence at a higher level by assigning priorities to broad areas of research.

    Two things science could work on in its messaging on politically relevant topics:
    1) The image of political neutrality. The majority of scientists lean left, and they are generally not shy about that. A scientific position that aligns with the politics of most scientists can appear more questionable than a position opposing their politics.
    2) Overstatement. Not to pick on the OP but the following caught my eye: “We understand the nature of life though DNA and how structures arise through protein construction during embryonic development.” This is rather overstated. We have an understanding of some of the mechanics of life, we do not understand the nature of life. Overblown claims of what science knows and is capable of can undermine its messaging.

  25. Yeah, I agree that sound science ought to be revered. And “climate-denial” is unfortunate. But our government has failed at basing its decisions on sound science. I am no Trump supporter. Can’t stand the guy. But I have sat across the table from too many non-scientist EPA bureaucrats to have any confidence that the last eight years were driven by anything but ideology and a general hatred for business and industry. Particularly at the regional administrator level. I have personally felt that hate. And it has had absolutely no basis in sound science. Only after hearty discussion and a fare dose of advocacy did those officials come off their high horse to have real, productive, discussions. And the constant de-horse-ing has been an unnecessary waste of time.

    A healthy cynicism for how government agencies operate, and a firm questioning of their agenda-driven regulation may, I hope, be one of the good things that comes out of this new government. Because for the last eight years, the work has been needlessly hard.

    Unfortunately, several states will embolden their disinterest in reasonable dialogue. So the progress may have only a passing placebo effect.

    Fascinating times!

  26. It’s a pity the Eisenhower removed the term “academic” in his warning about the “military industrial complex.” The Academy has grown over dependent on government spending, and the population is too lazy to demand accountability. The population has learned that we can “vote ourselves more benefits” and someone else will pay. Until the workers get tired and decide to leave.

  27. As an academic scientist and statistician, I also agree with sidebottom, rd, and others. Clearly, not all science is politicized and I think the system works decently well in the less politicized fields. But overstatement is definitely a problem. To get funding in any field, you have to show that you’re essentially curing cancer or (hey this sounds familiar) saving the world from catastrophe. Scientists who study climate change wouldn’t get nearly as much funding if they focused on most likely outcome. Instead, often the worst case scenario (which has very low probability of occurring) is emphasized instead which greatly overstates the problem.

    Another issue that comes in these cases is that the science itself isn’t political, but the prescribed solution by bureaucrats or even scientists themselves is very political. If people were allowed (socially, without being branded “anti-science” rubes) to consider alternative solutions, I think you would see support go up.

    Also, to point out a few scientific “disasters” that never occurred, consider the population bomb, peak oil, etc.

  28. @rd perhaps you could elaborate? I’ve set on a number of EPA science advisory board especially in transgenic resistance management and I’ve not seen the hatred of industry you claim. I’ve seen the opposite enough because the industry I’ve worked resist actively any regulation as it cuts into their profits. What was the industry? What was the situation? We have cleaned up Lake Erie, stopped acid rain, and the ozone hole, cleaned up numerous city’s air, always this came at a cost, industry resisted. When that agenda is health and safety for the nation yeah, I think some work and compromise is required.

    Mark L. “The Academy has grown over dependent on government spending” do you really believe the science required to provide the infrastructure we rely on could be supported in any other way NASA, NOAH, NIH an much of the ‘Greatness’ of this country comes because of our investment in research. Who are you claiming science should be dependent on? Charity maybe? Industry with a vested interest in science that promotes their bottom line? Of course the academe depends of funds provided by the people through taxes in order to do the work that we all gain from in scientific advancement.

    a2nh Your claim that science has to claim extraordinary results to be funded. I’ve never seen this. The typical grant application has to provide details on what will be done, the theory and preliminary data that support the hope that this will be successful, what data will be collected and why, the history of the problem to provide context for the work. Certainly the claim, “Our lab can cure cancer, would get attention, but that attention would be focused on the data they provide, the analysis that would be performed, the prelim evidence for such a claim, and if they could not produce it, the grant would be rejected. The sloppiness you seem to purport goes into funding decision I think is naive. While some scientists, who you seem to think represent the whole with passe jabs at the “Population Bomb” by Paul R. Ehrlich and disasters that never occurred, yet there are far less common than the disasters that were averted, especially in things like medicine. The myth of science overreach is largely put in place by special interests, science is one of America’s greatest assets to disparage it harms us all because it fits into the narrative of science deniers. Certainly, scientists should be modest, but the current climate of science disparagement needs to be resisted.

  29. @SteveP: I work in manufacturing. And for a company that complies with the letter and the spirit of the law. And, frankly, with the reasonable demands of good society. To the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of that work is done in compliance with reasonable laws and regulations, but more often than not it is done to appease a regulatory body that has lost sight of the goal. On remediation matters, the agency has stretched the bounds of “reasonable cleanup standards” and forced industry to chase the unattainable simply in an effort to keep itself relevant. And on enforcement matters, so many of its high level regulators (regional administrators) set a tone where rational discussion was replaced with unfounded distrust and unwillingness to acknowledge the good efforts of industry. I’m all for clean air and clean water and clean dirt. Those things are extremely important. And the laws passed to protect them are, for the most part, reasonable. However, the executive branch has gone way too far. And the inability of EPA administrators to acknowledge that a dollar spent is not necessary a dollar well spent has blinded them. But, be sure, it is about the money.

    I am hopeful that will change.

    Fun topic for a Mormon blog!

  30. rd, I appreciate the difficulty of reaching a consensus. With so many stakeholders this must be difficult for all involved. But I think the best thing for everyone is transparency. I appreciate your weighing in here, your perspective is important. I think conversations are important at every level of the topic!

  31. rd, that attitude of distrust on the part of administrators is a direct response to years of contempt for many of the reasonable laws and regulations you mention from the entities so regulated–and I say this as an employee of a heavily regulated entity (an electric utility in California) that doesn’t necessarily have the best relationship with its regulator. To be sure, we’re guaranteed a profit in return for providing service to customers who cost much more to serve than they pay in rates; your firm presumably doesn’t have such an arrangement.

    Having said that, I’ve worked in regulatory consulting doing benefit-cost analysis (as mandated by Executive Order #13066, issued by Bill Clinton in 1993) for proposed regulations. Some agencies have embraced benefit-cost analysis a lot more than others have. There are a lot of people for whom the idea of placing a dollar value on human life in order to weigh it against lost income for others is just abhorrent, even though everyone does this every day in some fashion, and doing so is vitally necessary given finite resources.

  32. Sidebottom says:

    Thanks to the other scientists for weighing in.

  33. BTW I’m an economist. I only get to call myself a scientist on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday of each month.

  34. “On remediation matters, the agency has stretched the bounds of “reasonable cleanup standards” and forced industry to chase the unattainable simply in an effort to keep itself relevant.”

    EPA cleanup standards are based on extensive reviews of scientific studies. They use laboratory and field studies to quantify risk for exposure, and then calculate the screening level based on the likelihood of exposure (for instance, screening levels are higher if the land is going to be a residential area as opposed to industrial use, and are different for soil, water, and vapor). The cleanup standards are based on the health risks, expected use, and extent of contamination. The EPA then periodically reviews the science and changes the cleanup standards accordingly.

    Here is a guide to the EPA’s risk assessment process. It is not an opaque process, just a complicated one.

    https://www.epa.gov/risk/regional-screening-levels-rsls-users-guide-may-2016

    Regulations seem burdensome until it is your house that is sitting on top of contaminated groundwater, and your children are breathing in carcinogenic fumes. I’ve talked to those families because part of my job is sampling homes and measuring toxins in the air (mostly PCE and TCE, common contaminants from dry cleaners and vehicle maintenance facilities). I also work on the superfund site that is barely a mile away from where I grew up, and which may have something to do with why my mom and dad (and several neighbors) have cancer.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this is what drives me crazy when people (industries) whine about regulations. Cleanup is incredibly expensive. It lasts for decades. Cleanup standards are really, really hard to meet. In the process people get hurt and the responsible party loses millions of dollars. Regulations, if written right and followed, prevent all of that from happening in the first place.

  35. Rachel thank you for that. That’s an important view of things. People talk about regulations as if they are bad thing until they are the ones bearing the brunt of the danger. Good point.

  36. Rachel, fair points all. In a vacuum your point would hold. Unfortunately I have dealt with every EPA region and their application of politically-based screening levels and imposition of cleanup requirements for unforeseeable future uses lead to unnecessary expense. And bankruptcies. There is no “superfund” anymore. Rather companies bear the cost of cleanup that make no sense and are funding the operation of an unnecessarily outsized agency. And once a site enters superfund the costs rise exponentially to pay for government “oversight” and countless bureaucratic hurdles that are simply unnecessary and have zero bearing on whether anyone or anything is at risk. It just is. Where the risk is real you could not be more correct. But too often the risk is manufactured. Again, just because it’s the government demanding a dollar be spent does not mean it should. Even if they claim science. And when it’s EPA that screws up (See 2015 Gold King Mine) the government’s level of of accountability is relatively miniscule. If Dow (for example) yellowed that river it would still be front page news.

    I don’t ask for no regulation. I ask for reasonable dialogue. It has been lost the last eight years.

  37. “Too often the risk is manufactured.”

    Source, please? Show me a cleanup standard and I’ll point you to the risk assessment. Then we can talk about what human health risks and how many incidences are acceptable for your company’s pocketbook.

    Also, most of the sites I work on are government sites (Air force bases, VA hospitals). The government screwed up and the government (taxpayers) has to pay for it and meet the same standards as everyone else. I’m not here to argue government bureaucracy is a well-oiled, perfect machine – I work in consulting and it is really hard to work with the bureaucrats on our end too. But you need to know that the standards are based in science and are there to protect everyone. The EPA has extensive documentation on its regulatory decisions if you care to do a little research.

  38. Rachel,

    We risk talking past each other. And this is not a forum for an airing out of the multiple political maneuvers to which industry has been subjected–as my experiences are specific, real, and–well–privileged. In an optimal world, the standards “are based in science.” And sometimes they are. But, not always. And EPA needs to be checked. I hope that they are.

    I do appreciate the discussion. And appreciate your passion. It’s a good thing. Thank you. It sounds like we may sit at some of the same, or similar, tables in our work. Here’s to good outcomes!

  39. rd,

    Fair enough, and you too. If you ever do care to throw a source my way, I would be very interested in understanding those experiences.

  40. I also work in a regulated industry–on the industry side. We are often frustrated with our regulatory counterpart because decisions sometimes seem to be capricious, overly-risk averse, or to come from poor scientific understanding. Also, some standards apply precision science beyond its usefulness. Further, once our regulatory counterpart takes a position, I’m told it is almost impossible to talk him/her out of it. Some of this is just a personality issue, and I imagine some of it comes from the agency culture. So I get the frustration.

    On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t want that regulatory function to disappear. That way lies a lot of bad consequences.

  41. Regarding the enforcement of regulations by bureaucrats, etc., read “The Death of Common Sense.”

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