16 June 2010

Climategate and the 3 Tests of Trust

I attended a Panos London Board meeting yesterday. Panos London is an NGO focusing on communication: voice, dialogue, ICT and media in areas such as climate change and public health. It is doing a lot of innovative work and I urge you to check them out.

At the end of the Board meeting I participated in a panel on "From Emails to Firestorm: the role of the Media in Climategate", set up to coincide with the completion of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings in Bonn.

Six months on from Copenhagen I argued that the "climategate" fiasco set up 3 tests of trust for the science community -- and that we failed two of those tests.

First, the trust in the credibility of the science base. This was attacked for sure, and took some hits, but my sense is that it emerged bloodied, not bowed. That's largely because of the multi-sited nature of the IPCC. It's not seen as a rich country club--it brings together perspective from all over the world, and because of that roundedness, it is more resilient to attacks from the media and elsewhere. So I think we passed that test of trust--just about.

I think we failed the second test, however, and that is the test of communication. Science is not easy for most scientists to communicate to nonscientists, and much of the furore could have been prevented and dampened with better communication: why were the data "altered"? What does "altering" mean? What are the uncertainties around the conclusions? Which phenomena can't be attributed to climate change? If you don't agree with me does that mean you are against me? When public opinion is with you these questions seem less important, and when the tide inevitably turns you realise how ill-prepared you are. We need to spend more time and care in dialogue with the media, resisting the temptation to polarise the debate.

Third, we failed the information openness test. By not releasing publicly funded climate data it looked as though something was being covered up. The scientific process is also stymied by this. No-one is covered in glory by this withholding. Scientists (including social scientists) have to realise that they do not own the data--especially when it guides public money spent on public goods. They may have spent a long time getting it into the necessary shape to analyse it, but surely their rights are to first analysis, not lifetime patent. The story cannot be about the withheld data, it must be about what the data say to a range of different researchers.

If there was one thing the research councils and DFID could do to vastly increase the value for money of research they fund and build trust with the media and public, it would be to incentivise open access data.


Nur said...

Hi Lawrence,

Can you please clarify what you mean by 'incentivise open access data'?

Lawrence said...

Hi Nur. I mean

* making data access a requirement for receipt of funding and also of payment payment
* providing funds to do the data archiving
* including data access in environment scores in allocating higher education funding
* incorporating data citations/use in esteem scores for allocating higher education funding.

and so on..there are lots of things the funders can do.

Best, Lawrence