Friday, 26 November 2010

Freedom of Information and Science

First published in the Times Higher Education magazine 25th November 2010. This is a joint article with Alice Bell.

The idea that "information" should be freely available has become a central feature of what, in the 21st century, we expect from a well-functioning democracy. Words such as "openness" and "transparency" litter the rhetoric of public policy discourse. They are also characteristics that for many define good science.
Why, then, has Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, a key tool in facilitating openness and transparency, developed such an uncomfortable relationship with UK scientific research? Were researchers "asleep at the wheel" when FoI came calling? Or, to turn the question around, was FoI legislation ready for science?
The UK's Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 2000 and came into force on 1 January 2005, aims to ensure that public bodies are publicly accountable. It legally obliges public authorities to provide information in response to FoI requests within 20 days.

Although some would argue that it is still not used widely enough, FoI seems to have been embraced by at least some parts of the British public, with about 30,000 requests for information flooding in each year. The majority of these requests are aimed at local and national government - with perhaps the most famous example being the publication of MPs' expenses in 2009 after a protracted legal battle fought by journalists and FoI campaigners, although ultimately, the information was leaked.

However, universities can be the target of FoI legislation too, as demonstrated by the illegal release of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia last year, which revealed controversial correspondence between researchers on the subject of FoI requests for climate change data.
In another high-profile clash between FoI campaigners and academia in April this year, Queen's University Belfast was ordered by the Information Commissioner to hand over 40 years' worth of research data on tree rings after a three-year campaign by a climate sceptic.

At East Anglia, a seemingly endless series of inquiries has established that none of the more outlandish allegations made against the staff was true: data were not fabricated and there was no "smoking gun" that proved climate change to be a lie. But as even the staunchest supporters of the beleaguered research team at the CRU have had to admit, the way in which FoI requests were dealt with was unsatisfactory. The Independent Climate Change Email Review found this summer that the scientists did show "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper defence of openness", particularly around FoI.

According to Fred Pearce, the environmental journalist who covered the story in most detail, an important lesson emerged from the debris of the "Climategate" debacle: science simply was not ready for FoI legislation.
"Science as a community did not see that the FoI laws would impact on science. Like many of us, they thought it was designed to uncover self-serving Whitehall secrets and our own personal files (held by public bodies). I regard the failure to see what was coming down the track as a real failure of the science community."

Similarly, an event on FoI and academia held last year by the Research Information Network noted "lethargy" when it came to researchers' approach to the legislation - not only in terms of their reactions to outside requests, but also in making use of FoI in their own work (see box, below).

At the root of all this is a profound question about the nature of scientific knowledge itself. Is a request for "information" a productive way of opening up scientific knowledge?

The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists - and, of course, emails - can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone's raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?

Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, argues that scientific knowledge is built on more than mere data, computer codes or theories.

"With complex issues like climate change, sophisticated forms of expert knowledge assessment are necessary to weigh conflicting, incomplete or ambiguous evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a good example of this. Of necessity, such assessment is discursive and deliberative, and cannot be captured in data, theory or even in formalised recorded words. Here, FoI - if it is being used to reveal the foundations and construction of knowledge - reaches its limits. If scientific knowledge is to continue to warrant public trust, then expert deliberations, eg, the IPCC, should be made public events."

Hulme - who has publicly criticised the CRU researchers involved in the Climategate affair - is clearly not suggesting that the norms of scientific research provide a means of wriggling out of accountability. But at a fundamental level, the nature of scientific "knowledge" seems at odds with the "information" that can be revealed through FoI requests. FoI legislation can skim the surface of knowledge and cream off information - but to get at the heart of a scientific dispute requires scientific expertise.

Anyone can audit a list of expenses. Only someone with the right knowledge can settle a technical dispute in a satisfactory way. Expecting FoI requests to be able to arbitrate between competing knowledge claims is no more plausible than asking the social services to use FoI to uncover instances of "bad parenting" - it's the wrong tool for the job.

At a very practical level, FoI also seems unsuited to the current institutional culture of scientific research. Many scientists are uneasy about sharing their precious intellectual resources unless it is on their own terms - not least for fear that they will be misrepresented.

"I think there's certainly a tension, in that scientists see freeing their information rather differently to how FoI works," says Martin Griffiths, national coordinator for science journalism training at the Royal Statistical Society. "FoI goes beyond just the data and allows the release of correspondence between scientists. These may not make much sense to outsiders and lead to the kind of language problems we saw in Climategate - with (the word) 'tricks' (being used) and so on - that are everyday parts of science being blown out of proportion."

Gabrielle Bourke, a researcher at University College London's Constitution Unit, makes a similar point about the tensions between academic work and FoI.

"The ways in which scientists go about their work, such as peer review, don't necessarily sit very well with the FoI policy," she says. "The usual way is not to hand over your data before you have done work on it."
Martin Robbins, a science writer, posted a provocative blog post in April arguing that he "couldn't see why academic data should be covered by the FoI Act". He railed against the idea that because the public have paid for research, they should have access to it.

"We actually haven't paid for it," he wrote. "The public pay for research to be done. They do not pay for peer review, or publication, or data archiving, or indeed any sort of public dissemination of information except where it's explicitly set out in the funded proposal."

In addition, while most research is publicly funded, not all of it is - and the FoI legislation does not apply to research funded through private channels. This means industry lobbyists or other groups can use FoI as a tactic to delay publicly funded research programmes.

A great deal has already been written about the motivations of the army of bloggers who bombarded the University of East Anglia with FoI requests. Were these part of a genuine desire to find, use and share information, or designed to mess researchers around and stop them from getting on with other work?
Legislation designed to make publicly funded research open and accountable may be abused to suppress particular pieces of work - potentially for political ends. This problem was perhaps made most evident in the controversy surrounding the US' Data Quality Act. And at the University of East Anglia, it certainly seemed as if some of the FoI requests satisfied the Information Commissioner's definition of "vexatious", although other (apparently legitimate) requests do also appear to have been ignored by the scientists.

Of course, many public bodies could construct a compelling argument for why they should be exempted from the demands of FoI, but there does seem to be something special about the academic case, because of the nature of scientific knowledge. However, because the academic community did not spot the possible implications of FoI for scientific activity when the legislation was written, says Pearce, "we now have law that is so badly drafted it makes no distinction between the needs of scientific discourse and the demands of angry bloggers".

UCL's Bourke notes that in the US, there is a set of exceptions for universities, which came into effect in 1999 after a consultation process in which the universities participated.
"Maybe UK academics and academic organisations just need to have a conversation about FoI," she suggests. "Just because there is a tension doesn't mean universities and FoI can't be reconciled. Indeed, there are lots of movements to open data."

To return to the question of whether science was prepared for FoI or the other way around, the answer seems to sit somewhere in the middle. At a minimum, the bodies controlling publicly funded science were not engaged enough with the policy process. In 1999, while UK academics were ignoring FoI legislation, their US counterparts were helping to improve theirs. Since then, there is evidence that even in the political domain, FoI is not the silver bullet that its proponents envisaged.

In a review of the impact of FoI legislation on UK governance, Ben Worthy, also from UCL's Constitution Unit, argues that while FoI has achieved the core objectives of increasing transparency and accountability, it has not increased public participation in governance issues. According to Worthy, FoI is simply not a powerful enough tool to tackle the complex, deep-rooted issues that prevent increased participation, understanding or trust.

While his argument is aimed at governance, the logic applies just as well to science.
FoI legislation alone cannot be a panacea for public trust in science. A meaningful relationship between science and the world beyond the ivory tower is unlikely to be predicated on the superficial level of transparency achieved by FoI requests. At best, they will act as a useful audit of data, uncovering the odd mistake or oversight. But left alone, there is a danger that public engagement with the scientific process will be reduced to an exchange of mutually distrustful FoI correspondence, or a rather limited interaction between the public and the university PR office.

Science needs to learn to live with FoI, regardless of whether it can deliver a meaningful assessment of scientific knowledge to the public. But the key challenge is for scientists to find ways of increasing openness that are more proactive and less confrontational than the FoI process (see box, below). Dialogue-based processes of deliberation and interaction are more powerful ways to build trust between scientists and the public, and the questions that can be asked can go deeper than an acrimonious audit of a model or dataset.
The role of the public in shaping the work scientists do is critical - public engagement is vital to ensure scientific programmes are not only technically sound, but socially beneficial.

So public engagement with science is worth fighting for, but accessing science through FoI legislation is unlikely to lead to a satisfactory outcome for scientists or the public.

According to a review of FoI legislation in Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1987, its introduction led to greater scrutiny of ministers' expenses rather than of their management of economic policy. Are we more interested in reading scientists' emails or in shaping the values that guide their work?

AC (and Alice Bell)

Climate change scepticism is about more than just science

First published in the Environment Section of the Guardian 23rd November 2010.

A coalition of leading US climate scientists this week launched a new rapid response website aimed at closing the gap between scientific knowledge and public opinion on climate change. For those who have become exasperated rebutting the endless stream of disinformation that frustratingly still characterises the climate change debate, it seems like an idea that is long overdue.

Fronted by the embattled Prof John Abraham, the website will provide direct access to climate science expertise through a network of scientists. But the premise underlying the initiative – that climate change scepticism will be reduced through a clearer presentation of the facts – is problematic. Why? Because climate change scepticism is only superficially about science.

The basic question of human impact on the climate is no longer seriously debated in the scientific literature. Science being science, there will always be uncertainties. But if the credibility of a scientific conclusion can be judged from the weight of evidence that supports it, then climate change is a fact. The problem is that seemingly objective facts are surprisingly malleable – especially when they are perceived to have implications for policy or behaviour.

Several decades of social psychological research have shown that on any number of topics – from capital punishment, to gun control, to nanotechnologies – people squeeze new evidence through powerful social and cultural filters. Pouring facts into this filter system does not necessarily produce consensus – and it can even cause attitudes to polarise.

So it is no surprise that the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have acted as a lighting rod for disagreement. For an individual who supports co-ordinated international action to tackle climate change, what could be more compelling than a consensus statement from an international body of independent scientists? For someone inclined to perceive international regulations as a threat to trade and industry, an international report that speaks of consensus is likely to set alarm bells ringing. The facts are the same in both cases: the interpretation very different.

As Mike Hulme showed in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, many of the arguments that rage around climate science are not really about climate change at all: they are disputes about personal values, regulation, economic growth or the acceptable level of government intervention in our lives. Climate change just happens to cut to the heart of these red hot issues – and so it is used as a vehicle for thrashing out ancient disputes.

The gap between scientific knowledge on climate change and public attitudes is unlikely to be closed by opening up a new front of climate science dissemination. Previous experience with scientific topics such as GM crops suggests that turning up the volume on the science will not necessarily lead to greater public acceptance of climate change. So what is the alternative?

First, we have to accept that climate change scepticism is not primarily about the science. The fact that more than half of the incoming Republican politicians in the US mid-term elections dispute climate change illustrates this perfectly. These people were not driven by their rejection of climate change science to become Republicans – their conservative views have coloured their interpretation of the science, which they see as threatening to their ideology.

Second, our methods for engaging the public need to move away from the one-way dissemination of information, and towards more participatory approaches. Providing opportunities for people to deliberate with each other about climate change allows the reasons for disagreement to come to the fore. If these reasons are based on values, cultural world-views or ideology, then it makes sense to get these disagreements out into the open rather than obscuring them by fighting political battles using the language of science.

The rapid response website is an attempt to draw a line under a year marked by accusations and acrimony, and as a channel for climate scientists to provide information to the media and the public it should be welcomed. But while dispelling myths about climate change is a valuable public service to offer, the truth about climate scepticism is that it is not just a dispute over the science. The challenge for scientists and communicators is to find ways of engaging the public where the real reasons for disagreement can take centre stage – only then can the debate move forward.


Geoengineering is a dilemma for scientists

First published in the Environment Section of the Guardian 10th November 2010

For two days the hallowed halls of the Royal Society in London have been filled with uncomfortable-looking climate scientists. But this is not another "climategate" inquiry, it's a meeting on geo-engineering – proposals to deploy global-scale technologies to control the planet's climate.

For the most part, these technologies don't yet exist. But as time ticks by and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, scientists are starting to take geo-engineering seriously. Proposals range from sunlight-reflecting mirrors in space to machines that can scrub carbon dioxide from the air to the seeding of algal blooms in the oceans, which suck carbon dioxide down to the sea bed and keep it there.

The level of scientific uncertainty around geo-engineering is formidable: fears of unintended side effects and irreversible interventions loom large in researchers' minds. Scientists being scientists, they're keen to plug the gaps in their knowledge – but they don't look all that happy about it.

The problem is that proposals to geo-engineer the climate come loaded with social and ethical concerns. Is it acceptable to intentionally intervene in the volatile climate system? How would it be governed? What would prevent the abuse of climate-controlling technologies, and whose hand would be on the global thermostat?
The growing number of scientists working on different aspects of geo-engineering research – from climate modelling, to lab experiments with reflective particles that could be injected into the stratosphere – are anxious to emphasise that they are not geo-engineering cheerleaders. They simply want to understand the pros and cons of different technologies, in case the day came when they might be needed, a day they hope will never come.

The Royal Society itself has taken great care to indicate that it does not advocate geo-engineering – and certainly not in the place of deep global cuts in greenhouse gases. But it does advocate research on geo-engineering, and that's where the dilemma for many scientists kicks in.

On the one hand, it is clearly prudent to understand more about geo-engineering – the worst of all scenarios would involve a government deploying a technology without knowing what its effects would be. Initial evidence suggests that spraying the skies with reflective particles of sulphate would have a major impact on patterns of rainfall. Surely it is better to know this sooner rather than later?

On the other hand, conducting research on geo-engineering is one of the main factors that will make the deployment of the technologies more likely. Most scientists are deeply sceptical about the use of such "remedial" action on global warming. But scientists won't be the ones to decide whether the technology is used. So are they unwittingly clearing the path for future deployment?

Of course, research should help to rule out the craziest of the geo-engineering proposals. Basic research might mean certain dangerous ideas are rejected - and already there is evidence that fertilising the oceans would be a highly risky undertaking. This is valuable knowledge. But there is a danger that the very fact that research is taking place will send out a signal to politicians: there is an alternative to cutting carbon.

For some, the process is eerily reminiscent of the race to develop nuclear weapons in the 1940s. While it might seem alarmist to compare geo-engineering to the quest for nuclear capability, the parallels are striking: both involve novel, uncertain and hugely powerful technologies deployed for the purposes of defence against a threat, both are mired in ethical controversy, and both have an undercurrent of inevitability driving them along.
The Manhattan Project co-opted science to advance military aims. Preventing dangerous climate change is a much nobler endeavour, but the social and ethical implications of geo-engineering the climate are so profound that the scientists involved are caught in an unenviable dilemma. Can this research exist independently of deployment, or is their work ushering in an era of climate intervention that they openly caution against?