Integrity of Science

Talking Science Integrity at AGU

At what point is the science certain enough on an issue?
Is there a line of policy involvement that scientists shouldn’t cross?
What will the new Congress mean for science and scientists?

These were some of the questions aired at science integrity-related events at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting on Tuesday. At the morning discussion “Defining and Protecting the Integrity of Science: New Challenges for the 21st Century,” panelists tackled the personal, the political, and much in between. Later in the day, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) sponsored a workshop for scientists concerned about attacks on independent science.

Also of note Tuesday, UCS announced that since 2004 it has collected more than 10,000 signatures of Nobel laureates and other leading scientists on its letter condemning political interference in science. Furthermore, UCS released an “A to Z” guide detailing “recent allegations involving censorship and political interference in federal science.” Click here for the press release with links to the signatures and the guide.

Much more from AGU after the jump.


Despite heavy rains that snarled traffic and left more than one panelist sopping wet, “Defining and Protecting the Integrity of Science” got underway at 8 a.m. to what would eventually become a packed house of approximately 350. First off and presiding over the panel was Dr. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, who gave the talk The Integrity of Science: Identifying Logical Fallacies, Deceitful Tactics, and Abuse of the Public Trust. The presentation presented three lenses for viewing attacks on science.

“When is something certain enough to be useful for policymaking?” asked Gleick. “In science we know that there is always uncertainty … At some point the alternative view is not worth teaching in our classrooms.” Gleick presented several solutions to these problems.

Next up was Dr. Judith Curry, Professor and Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, and member of NOAA’s Climate Working Group. Her talk, Falling out of the Ivory Tower: a Case Study of Mixing Hurricane Science, Politics, and the Media detailed her quick and unplanned trip from academic to activist.

“Katrina was a political hurricane with a global impact,” Curry said. Having released a paper on the relationship between ocean sea temperature and hurricane intensity within weeks of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, she as a “Ivory Tower Denizen” was “surprised and totally unprepared for Hurricane Katrina to become a political flashpoint.” She and her colleagues struggled to convey esotery and scientific soundness to a suddenly interested public, while newspapers focused on and magnified between climatologists and meteorologists. She believes scientists – academics in particular – have three strategies for engaging skeptics:

1) “Retreat into the ivory tower”
2) “Circle the wagons an point guns outward”
3) “Take the high ground”

She encouraged that while it may not be comfortable for some, taking the high road and engaging skeptics on their own terms could do the most long term good. She closed with a warning from author Chris Mooney: “You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.”

Next was Dr. Don Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science, who presented Science, Policy, and Peer Review. He said that failures of peer review generate problems for science, and asked in light of his journal’s high standards, “how did peer review fail?” when Science published a Korean stem cell study that was later declared fabricated. Looking at the development of statutory peer review in federal agency research, Kennedy was optimistic. “For all its limitations, peer review provides protection against altering of science for political objectives.”

AGU President Dr. Timothy Killeen followed with Scientific Integrity at the AGU: What is it?” Dr. Killeen spoke of the Union’s responsibility to preserving and protecting scientific excellence as well as open debate and discussion, as well as the responsibility scientists have for engaging journalists (he highlighted a study that found that a majority of scientists think journalists don’t possess sufficient scientific understanding, while a majority of journalists find that scientists are inaccessible and cannot communicate their work). However, Killeen cautioned against conflating outreach and politics. “AGU should not take or advocate public positions on judgmental issues that extend beyond the range of science,” he said. AGU, he said, remains committed to science, communicating that science, providing a venue of open debate and discussion, and “taking the high road.”

Rounding out the panel was Dr. Francesca Grifo, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program Director, who spoke on Preventing Federal Government Abuse of Science. “Pernicious interference (in federal agencies) is becoming more than skin deep,” said Grifo, who focused on federal attacks on science and scientists. She expressed hope that the new Congress will help correct this trend by passing new legislation and providing oversight of the executive branch, among other tactics.

The PowerPoint presentations will be posted on Pacific Institute’s www.integrityofscience.org in the coming days.

Speculation as to what the 110th Congress can, should, and will do was a theme that carried through the question-and-answer series that followed, and into UCS’s workshop. The small session, attended by scientists representing non-profits, government agencies, and academia spoke on the history of UCS’s scientific integrity work and how scientists can and should be involved in exposing problems and working toward solutions.

All-in-all the day was more hopeful than we would have expected. Perhaps optimism has grown from the knowledge that Senator “Greatest Hoax Ever” Inhofe has presided over his last committee meeting or the coverage that these attacks have received in the press. I think most who attended would agree, however, that there is much for scientists to do: as citizens and as experts.

This blogger will be returning to the AGU Fall Meeting on Thursday for discussions on communicating science to the general public and the press.