You may have heard of sequestered juries in the courtroom but probably you haven’t heard of sequestered science. Sequestered science is the name given by the project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) to scientific knowledge concealed from the public. [Full disclosure; I am personally acquainted with the SKAPPers]. Last year they held a scholarly conference on the subject. It is published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems and you can download the papers for free at the SKAPP site.
It’s not that there aren’t reasons to keep some kinds of science from public view, for example, from competitors in business. Like most things, it’s a question of balance and trade-offs. And there are some practices – like sealing evidence in lawsuits that might materially affect public health, or concealing the results of unfavorable clinical trials – that are clearly not in the public interest.
In the forward to the collection of papers Dr. David Michaels of George Washington University sets out some of the issues:
“The processes used to maintain secrecy are easily abused, and the institutional tools and imperatives that hide data are stronger than those that promote data sharing,” writes SKAPP Director David Michaels, PhD in the issue’s foreword.
Michaels cites tobacco and asbestos as “the best known and most tragic examples of data sequestration contributing to public health disasters” and adds Merck’s slanted interpretation of Vioxx clinical trial data to the list of cases in which a lack of transparency had widespread fatal consequences.
Michaels’s proposal, for a “Sarbanes-Oxley for Science,” involves mechanisms to ensure that scientific information provided to the public and regulatory agencies is accurate and complete, much as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act passed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals attempts to ensure the accuracy of financial information. Scientists who reveal information improperly hidden from regulators would also receive whistleblower protections.
By its nature this is not a visible issue, but it is an extremely important one. The scholars who came together New York two years ago include some of the best minds on science and public policy we have. Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff, Anthony Robbins and Dan Givelbar (Tufts University and Northeastern Law School), philosopher of science Susan Haack (University of Miami) are among the authors.
And best of all you can read them for free. Nothing sequestered here. Available either at the SKAPP site (all articles in .pdf format) along with a lot of other great stuff) or at Law and Contemporary Problems.