Two interesting publications concerning scientific integrity appeared recently. Felicia LeClere, a principal research scientist at the University of Chicago, suggests, in an essay on Inside Higher Ed
on December 8, that requirements for data sharing now in place at some granting bodies and journals should be broadly extended because they could serve as a "cure for scientific misconduct."
And on December 7, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a policy on scientific integrity
scientists' right to speak freely with the media. Over a number of years, journalists have criticized the practice by many government agencies of requiring requests to speak with scientists to go through public relations offices. The policy also protects both whistleblowers and scientists wrongly accused of misconduct, limits conflicts of interest, and requires policy decisions by the agency
to reflect "the best available science." Critics have argued that policy decisions by public agencies sometimes place political considerations above scientific findings.
Requiring all researchers to reveal their data "in a timely and accessible manner," as some journals and funders now do, "will change incentives and behavior," LeClere asserts. Other scientists can "immediately" begin trying to replicate results, which will promptly reveal any flaws, she believes. In addition, the prospect of close scrutiny will discourage anyone from "fraudulent data [or] fraudulent findings."
The NOAA document, meanwhile, states that, "consistent with their official duties, NOAA scientists may speak freely to the media and the public about scientific and technical findings based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings and conclusions," states the NOAA policy. They are also "free to present viewpoints, for example about policy and management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions," so long as they make clear that those opinions are their own and not the agency's. "In no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings," it also says.
In addition, the agency will inform employees about and "abide by existing whistleblower protections," which are designed to prevent harm to the careers of people who raise issues in good faith. The Code of Scientific Conduct included in the NOAA policy requires honesty and accountability in handling research and results, and encourages people "immediately to report any observed, suspected or apparent Scientific and Research Misconduct."
This all sounds great. But experience teaches that few systems, no matter how excellent they appear, are automatically self-enforcing. Making data public will only serve as a safeguard of integrity, as LeClere suggests, if other people have an incentive to spend the time to examine and work with it. But as indicated in last week's special section of Science
devoted to replication, the issues involved can be far from simple.
The same certainly goes for working, as some NOAA and other government scientists do, on potentially controversial topics in a highly charged political environment. And enunciated organizational policies may be, as Shakespeare's put it, "more honor'd in the breach than the observance." Still, progress requires high aspirations. Here's hoping that these come to fruition.