Learning exactly the wrong lesson

For several years now I have heard fellow scientists worry that the dialogue around open and reproducible science could be used against science – to discredit results that people find inconvenient and even to de-fund science. And this has not just been fretting around the periphery. I have heard these concerns raised by scientists who hold policymaking positions in societies and journals.

A recent article by Ed Yong talks about this concern in the present political climate.

In this environment, many are concerned that attempts to improve science could be judo-flipped into ways of decrying or defunding it. “It’s been on our minds since the first week of November,” says Stuart Buck, Vice President of Research Integrity at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which funds attempts to improve reproducibility.

The worry is that policy-makers might ask why so much money should be poured into science if so many studies are weak or wrong? Or why should studies be allowed into the policy-making process if they’re inaccessible to public scrutiny? At a recent conference on reproducibility run by the National Academies of Sciences, clinical epidemiologist Hilda Bastian says that she and other speakers were told to consider these dangers when preparing their talks.

One possible conclusion is that this means we should slow down science’s movement toward greater openness and reproducibility. As Yong writes, “Everyone I spoke to felt that this is the wrong approach.” But as I said, those voices are out there and many could take Yong’s article as reinforcing their position. So I think it bears elaboration why that would be the wrong approach.

Probably the least principled reason, but an entirely unavoidable practical one, is just that it would be impossible. The discussion cannot be contained. Notwithstanding some defenses of gatekeeping and critiques of science discourse on social media (where much of this discussion is happening), there is just no way to keep scientists from talking about these issues in the open.

And imagine for a moment that we nevertheless tried to contain the conversation. Would that be a good idea? Consider the “climategate” faux-scandal. Opponents of climate science cooked up an anti-transparency conspiracy out of a few emails that showed nothing of the sort. Now imagine if we actually did that – if we kept scientists from discussing science’s problems in the open. And imagine that getting out. That would be a PR disaster to dwarf any misinterpretation of open science (because the worst PR disasters are the ones based in reality).

But to me, the even more compelling consideration is that if we put science’s public image first, we are inverting our core values. The conversation around open and reproducible science cuts to fundamental questions about what science is – such as that scientific knowledge is verifiable, and that it belongs to everyone – and why science offers unique value to society. We should fully and fearlessly engage in those questions and in making our institutions and practices better. We can solve the PR problem after that. In the long run, the way to make the best possible case for science is to make science the best possible.

Rather than shying away from talking about openness and reproducibility, I believe it is more critical than ever that we all pull together to move science forward. Because if we don’t, others will make changes in our name that serve other agendas.

For example, Yong’s article describes a bill pending in Congress that would set impossibly high standards of evidence for the Environmental Protection Agency to base policy on. Those standards are wrapped in the rhetoric of open science. But as Michael Eisen says in the article, “It won’t produce regulations based on more open science. It’ll just produce fewer regulations.” This is almost certainly the intended effect.

As long as scientists – individually and collectively in our societies and journals – drag our heels on making needed reforms, there will be a vacuum that others will try to fill. Turn that around, and the better the scientific community does its job of addressing openness and transparency in the service of actually making science do what science is supposed to do – making it more open, more verifiable, more accessible to everyone – the better positioned we will be to rebut those kinds of efforts by saying, “Nope, we got this.”