The words "science" and "censorship"clo not sit easily together. And yet over the past decade, science has come to occupy an increasingly important role in debates over free speech. This is partly due to public clashes between science and politics, from the censoring of climate science in the US under the Bush administration to David Nutt's dismissal as the UK government's adviser on drugs after voicing his views on the safety of ecstasy.
But it also reflects a revolution in access to information which has exposed every sector of society to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. From WikiLeaks to phone hacking, the tension between openness, privacy and confidentiality has become one of the defining issues of our time. Scientists have unexpectedly found themselves at the heart of this debate, as the latest round of leaked climate email s makes abundantly clear.
In recognition of this trend, the award-winning magazine Index on Censorship, which explores challenges to freedom of speech, has dedicated its latest issue, "Dark Matter", to science. One well-documented clash between science and censorship is in the use of libel actions to try to silence scientists and science writers; the journal Nature and Richard Dawkins are among the most recent to face suits. Scientists and science writers have emerged from some of these battles as free speech champions Wilinshurst and NASA climate scientist lames I lansen. There have also been striking incidents within science itself, perhaps most notoriously during the original "climategate scandal at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
The hacked emails revealed a reluctance to comply with freedom of information requests and possible attempts to conceal data. The information commissioner recently ruled that UEA should release its data, and partly in response to climategate. the UK's Royal Society has set up an investigation into openness. Not surprisingly there are debates about the proper course of action. Our special issue explores two opposing views. Fred Pearce, the leading chronicler of climategate, makes the argument for open access for the benefit of science and public discourse. Michael Halpern of the US Union of Concerned Scientists warns about freedom of information being deployed as a form of harassment.
He is calling on legislators to consider whether there is sufficient protection of academic free speech. This view has been echoed in the UK by Royal Society president Paul Nurse, as well as in the House of Lords during a debate on the proposed Protection of Freedoms legislation. The bill includes an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act which will oblige public authorities to release data sets in reusable electronic form and extend the range of FOI to the wider public sector. Two of the academics in the Lords. historian Paul flew and philosopher Onora O'Neill, raised concerns about the consequences for research. flew has suggested including an exemption for unpublished research (which already exists in Scottish WI legislation), warning of the possible harm that may be caused if data is released before it has been peer-reviewed.
However, even if an exemption is included in the bill, the combination of hackers, leakers and the sheer momentum of the open-access movement is likely to limit its scope, particularly for politically sensitive research. The leak of a further 5000 climategate cmails last week is a case in point. So there may be no other choice but to embrace full transparency. Any discussion about access to information cannot ignore the suppression of data within the drugs and medical devices industry. Lack of transparency in drug trials has left doctors dangerously ignorant of potential side effects. This is nothing new, but the demand for openness here too may become irresistible. As Deborah Cohen reports In our Issue, Thomas Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration believes that open access should be the default setting for drug trials once a drug is registered. Yet despite the backing of all the most eminent scientific institutions for openness there has been limited success. For now the focus remains on libel.
The pressing need for reform has resulted in an unprecedented campaigning alliance between free speech groups and science. For the past two years, the organisation Index on Censorship has been working on this with Sense about Science and the writers' association English PEN. There is no doubt that libel's chilling effect on scientific research and discourse has been a pivotal factor in the success of the campaign. While politicians are suspicious of giving any further freedom to the media, when presented with evidence of the extent to which scientists and science writers have been silenced and bullied by individuals, interest groups and industry, they have found it impossible to ignore. Reform that makes it less easy to use the law as a tool of intimidation and that introduces a robust public interest defence will be of critical importance for the future open discussion of issues of scientific concern. As Wilmshurst and Singh have demonstrated in their own costly and exhausting libel battles, all too often the fight for free speech depends on the courage of individuals. Both the law and the culture within the science establishment have to change in order to safeguard open debate. Freedom of expression depends on it.
SOURCE : NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE DECEMBER 2011