A microphone in front of a red curtain

Transparency bad for science?

The Index on Censorship is a leading UK organisation promoting freedom of expression, founded in 1972. But I’ll be honest, as a physicist, it had been off my radar until this month. It is now hosting an incredibly timely digital debate on science and transparency, which kicked off in December with a panel event on data entitled ‘Is transparency bad for science?’

The heated clash of intellects has now been viewed a few thousand times on YouTube. Two of the panel attendees George Monbiot and Baroness Onora O’Neill, locked heads on 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’.

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’.

Scientific openness is no laughing matter

It all got me thinking. This stuff is really important. Are we OK with graduate training in most sciences being so barren of these topics? Particularly when so many graduates are subsequently called upon in their careers to be politically and socially influential?

Moreover, 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 the sciences 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.

Thrown into the mix is my own particular set of censorship issues: I cannot talk about 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?

Rosie Walton

Rosie has a degree in physics and started her career working in research in particle physics at the LHC, CERN. She now works in Knowledge Management for the science and engineering sector, which involves addressing the challenges complex organisations face in using and passing on technical knowledge. She is a qualified teacher of Mathematics and Physics, and previously: editor of the New Journal of Physics, Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical and the Journal of Physics Condensed Matter, as well as science advisor for Stephen Hawking’s 2008 Channel Four and US Discovery documentary ‘Master of the Universe’.

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