In Science We Trust?

KAVYA PATHAK

Climategate was a reminder that scientists hold the power to ensure that the public accepts their work, and when they choose not to exercise it, everyone suffers.

Debate 2, Kavya Pathak ArticleAs scientists make greater advancements in understanding our world, it becomes more and more important that researchers make it a priority to keep the general population informed about their findings. The ongoing debates on climate change, evolution, and various other topics have shown us that without transparency, the scientific community will be forced to grapple with a public that puts little faith in its claims. This lack of trust is incredibly harmful to both the scientific community and the public; scientists are forced to defend themselves against baseless accusations, while the public is unable to take advantage of scientific discoveries or heed the warnings researchers attempt to communicate.

Nothing has illustrated this better than the 2009 Climategate scandal, when hackers unearthed thousands of emails between researchers from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. Among the published emails were discussions on potentially hiding data and refusing to honor freedom of information requests from climate change skeptics. The most unfortunate part of the so-called scandal was that after months of investigation, third-party organizations concluded that the actual research was accurate, and that it supported the known fact that global warming exists and is a man-made phenomenon. But the damage was done—in addition to harming the researchers’ credibility and the credibility of the climate change movement as a whole, the episode provided fodder for skeptics to undermine the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference. Climategate was a reminder that scientists hold the power to ensure that the public accepts their work, and when they choose not to exercise it, everyone suffers.

In other cases it is not scientists themselves who limit public engagement with research, but the corporations and regulatory bodies that impose their own interests on science. In the case of genetically modified organisms, agricultural companies like Monsanto employ end-user agreements to block independent researchers from testing their products. Though some of these restrictions were lifted in 2009, research still is not entirely independent. In situations like these, the public is unwilling or unable to reap any potential benefits of the products, the scientific community cannot produce unbiased work, and the corporations—along with science itself—are faced with stigma that takes years to combat.

Similarly, in 1996 Congress passed an NRA-backed law that led the Centers for Disease Control to end almost all research into gun violence. The law all but blocked off unbiased work on the subject, leaving only studies conducted by various pro- or anti-gun lobbies. Such partisan work is ultimately discounted by the public, causing public trust in research as a whole to decline. Once again, in order to ensure that controversies can be settled using research that the public can fully trust, research must be transparent and conducted in a manner that involves the public. Regulatory bodies as well as scientists must realize that public engagement can help end controversies by ensuring that research is conductedin a way that fosters trust among the public. When this trust is reached, the research community will regain its lost credibility, and the public will be able to use science to create a better world.

Kavya Pathak is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at kpathak@college.harvard.edu.