Hidden Danger: Willetts warns scientists to be more transparent

July 15, 2010

The "regrettable wariness" about sharing data shown by climate scientists at the University of East Anglia has added to the dangers that science faces from "complacency and arrogance", according to the universities and science minister.

Speaking at the Royal Institution last week, David Willetts warned that scientists could "morph from admired public luminaries into public enemies" if they did not behave transparently and allow others "to test and challenge both methods and results".

His comments were made after the publication of a report by Sir Muir Russell into the "Climategate" affair. It found that the "rigour and honesty" of scientists at UEA's Climatic Research Unit was beyond doubt, but that the CRU had been "unhelpful and defensive" when faced with requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

But Sir Muir acknowledged that there was "much scope for unintended consequences" when the act was applied to universities.

Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said that he would meet with the Information Commissioner to seek advice on how the FoI laws should be applied to research.

"Researchers must have freedom within the law to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without the fear of intimidation and threats," Professor Smith said.

"We cannot have a situation where researchers dealing with controversial areas of study are faced with a barrage of requests for information on early drafts of research and discussions, with the sole aim of disrupting that work."

Trevor Davies, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at UEA, said universities needed clarity on both the timescale for releasing active research data and the kinds of research data that should be covered by the act.

The problems researchers faced were compounded by the fact that the FoI Act did not allow for fair requests for information to be distinguished from those intended to disrupt work, he said.

"There is a real danger of important research being ground to a halt because of this difficulty," Professor Davies said.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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