by Judith Curry
The issue of scientists’ emails is heating up.
One would think that, following Climategate, climate scientists should expect that their emails might by made public, either through hacking or FOIA requests.
Nevertheless, more than 6 years later, the debate continues to rage over the sanctity (or not) of climate scientists’ emails.
The flag bearer for the latest push to make scientists’ emails available for public scrutiny is journalist Paul Thacker, who sits on the ‘warm’ side of the climate debate. A few days ago, Thacker wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes Scientists give up your emails. Excerpts:
NOAA has denied this request, and some within the scientific community have called Mr. Smith’s demands a witch hunt. But allowing agencies to keep secret the communications of scientists who work for the government sets a dangerous precedent. Some of what we know about abusive practices in science — whether it concerns tobacco, pharmaceuticals, chemicals or even climate change — has come from reading scientists’ emails.
Last August, a colleague and I wrote an article on the importance of transparency in science for one of the blogs of the science journal publisher PLOS. The argument was fairly simple: 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. This might strike most people as reasonable.
Our article promptly came under attack by several scientists and by the Union of Concerned Scientists. PLOS then removed our article from its site, though left the comments about it online. Never mind that the article had been peer-reviewed and promoted on social media by PLOS. In removing the article, PLOS explained that it “was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines.”
About two weeks later, this newspaper, in a Page 1 article, underscored the importance of access to scientists’ emails. Based in part on emails that had been sought by U.S. Right to Know, The Times reported that university scientists had become part of “an inner circle of industry consultants, lobbyists and executives who devised strategy on how to block state efforts to mandate G.M.O. labeling.” Similar articles appeared in The Boston Globe and in Bloomberg Business.
As interest groups on both the left and right increasingly try to politicize the scientific process, there’s little question that there will be misuse of the Freedom of Information laws that some journalists and watchdog organizations have used to uncover wrongdoing.
Scientists have been harassed in the past and no doubt will continue to be harassed in the future, just like other public servants.
But 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.
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.
Ronald Bailey of reason.org has an article Government-funded scientists: never hide anything from the public. Subtitle: Actually, science only works well when all scientists show their work. Punchline:
Earlier I was leery of possible FOIA abuse, but I now am persauded that the far greater danger is that researchers and government bureaucrats will use claims of harassment to hamper public debate and as excuses to hide information from the public that would embarrass them.
Union of Concerned Scientists
Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists has a thoughtful response: The public interest lies in promoting transparency AND protecting scientists from harassment. Excerpts:
Nobody—not UCS, not any credible science advocate—argues that access to scientific data and methodology should be off limits (except in narrow circumstances such as patient privacy or national security), especially when it is publicly funded. And many of us argue that we should be able to see documents that show financial relationships and any strings attached to those relationships.
Disclosure exemptions are important but should have limits
Should universities or government institutions that employ scientists be exempt from open records laws? Certainly not. Should all scientists’ emails be protected from public view? No way. Should we ensure that disclosure standards lead to accountability? Absolutely.
Those who have fully read the Freedom to Bully report and many subsequent articles should note that we consistently argue against overly broad exemptions to open records laws.
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.
Do we know where the line is? Not yet. And that’s the challenge our society is grappling with. We have plenty of work to do to increase transparency in science and rid it of inappropriate influence. But that doesn’t mean we should scan every handwritten note, record every phone call, or publish every email on a website.
Where should we go from here?
For scientists, the best defense against attacks is proactive disclosure of anything that could create a real or perceived conflict of interest, especially for researchers who work on issues that are publicly high-profile or contentious. But researchers receive severely inadequate guidance on what constitutes responsible disclosure. Often, the mistakes they make are out of ignorance or carelessness rather than an attempt to hide the truth.
Together, we need to develop common disclosure standards and incentives to adopt them. The best way to avoid these costly and distracting fights is to agree on what should be disclosed and what should be kept private and develop mechanisms to encourage these standards to be embraced. This would put all researchers—public and private–on more equal footing. I think that scientists, journalists, corporations, and universities could come up with a common framework. Then, all institutions that receive government grants could be compelled to comply with that framework as a condition of receiving those grants. There are probably other enforcement mechanisms worth considering, too.
A more thoughtful balance between academic freedom and accountability will lead to better public understanding of science and policy outcomes that are more in line with the public interest. In the meantime, scientists who work on contentious issues should be prepared for all kinds of scrutiny, both justified and unjustified.
During the past year, my emails at Georgia Tech have been subject to FOIA or other requests. The first was the request made by Rep Grijalva [link], which I interpreted as a politically motivated fishing expedition since we were identified as testifying for his political opponents, letters were sent to the university presidents, and the requests were publicized by Grijalva before obtaining any information from the requests – clearly an example of harassment.
The second request was a recent one, from reporter Timothy Cama, who requested:
I request any and all records concerning communications from January 1, 2015 to the present day between earth and atmospheric sciences professor Dr. Judith Curry or anyone on her behalf, and the following:
1. Sen. Ted Cruz or anyone on his behalf
2. Sen. Jim Inhofe or anyone on his behalf
3. Anyone with an email address from the United States Congress (containing “senate.gov” or “mail.house.gov”)
In both instances, Georgia Tech Legal Affairs promptly handed over the emails; I understand that Cama was asked to pay the costs of an electronic search of my emails (the estimated cost was less than $100.)
I didn’t particularly object to Cama’s request (relative to Grijalva’s request) because this was a FOIA request sent through the normal channels (not a letter to Georgia Tech’s President, implying I had done something ‘wrong’), and was targeted at a specific topic (rather than a fishing expedition).
The third instance was a subpoena from the Florida in the Supreme Court case on the water wars between Georgia and Florida [link] – I identified the relevant materials myself (it took a few days). I had absolutely no concerns about this request, and the process and deposition were rather interesting.
I have been accused in the blogosphere of taking an inconsistent stance on the Grijalva request versus Lamar Smith’s NOAA request regarding the Karl et al. paper [link]. I regarded Smith’s request as justified, targeted at obtaining additional information regarding judgments that went into the Karl et al. paper, and to assess whether the NCEI Director (Tom Karl) had been dancing to the tune of the Obama administration.
So, 11 months after the Grijalva inquisition, where do I stand on the subject of scientists’ emails?
I have a longstanding public commitment to transparency in climate science, since my first Climategate essay [link]. Since Climategate, the situation has vastly improved – data are publicly available, as well as methods, models, and metadata.
However, given the public importance and policy relevance of much climate research, this isn’t enough. Additional transparency is needed:
- We badly need to know what the reasoning is (and debate) behind the IPCC’s assessment of confidence levels. This issue was called out in the IAC review of the IPCC [link].
- More extensive documentation of what data is ignored and why in global climate data records.
- More extensive documentation of choices regarding methods used to ‘fix’ data biases
- More extensive documentation on the rationale for, and actual process of, climate model calibration
Formal documentation of these deliberations and the rejected data or choices would be best; in the absence of such documentation, emails provide the main source for such information. Journal articles with their word limits, even with supplementary information, simply do not allow for adequate documentation.
There needs to be better guidelines for providing information regarding sources of conflicts – funding sources, membership on committees and boards, etc. But as I have written elsewhere, this is not likely to be the major source of bias [link].
And finally, I am tired of scientists whining:
- that responding to FOIA requests is a burden. Most govt agencies and universities have staff that will conduct the email search (this is certainly the case at Georgia Tech, where such requests are handled by legal affairs and the IT office).
- that making scientists emails publicly available hampers the freedom to conduct unfettered research. Get over it – if your research is funded by the government, then your materials and emails are fair game. Keeping this in the back of your mind might even hamper the kinds of unprofessional and even unethical actions that were made apparent in the Climategate emails.
Politicians and journalists and advocacy groups are the most likely to make such requests. FOIA requests (at least in the U.S.) is the appropriate way to make these requests.
Scientists employed by the government (e.g. NOAA), have a greater responsibility to transparency and to responding to such requests, relative to university employed scientists who receive government funding. And of course independent scientists have no particular obligation in this regard, although many independent scientists (e.g. Nic Lewis) go above and beyond the usual requirements, by making all code and data available, and writing blog posts that go into further detail.
FOIA requests are not prima facie harassment; however the method used by Grijalva definitely constitutes harassment: publicizing the request before he receives any information, making a request that is clearly politically motivated (targeting scientists that have testified for Republicans), writing a letter to university presidents with the implication that the researchers have done something wrong, and whose request constitutes a broad fishing expedition.
I am glad to see Paul Thacker raising this issue. I agree with Michael Halpern’s statement: “Together, we need to develop common disclosure standards and incentives to adopt them.”