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Winter/Spring 2010 Vol. 10 Number 1



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Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt FROM THE PRESIDENT

National Academy of Sciences

Maintaining Scientific Integrity

As many of you have read in news accounts, hacked e-mails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (UEA/CRU) last fall have led to worldwide publicity and formal inquiries concerning whether some scientists may have manipulated or suppressed the release of climate data or otherwise acted unprofessionally. My reading of the vast scientific literature on climate change is that our understanding is undiminished by this incident. But some polls show that this episode has damaged public trust in what we as scientists do. All of us need to be concerned about this. The perceived misbehavior of even a few scientists can diminish the credibility of science as a whole.

What needs to be done? Two aspects need urgent attention: the general practice of science and the personal behavior of scientists. Some efforts to address both issues have already begun, but we still must make advances on both fronts.

Clarity and transparency must be reinforced to build and maintain trust in science. Scientists are taught to describe experiments, data, and calculations fully so that other scientists can replicate the research. Last year, our Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy put forth a framework for dealing with research data titled Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age. This report emphasizes that “Research data, methods, and other information integral to publicly reported results should be publicly accessible.” Some journals have established policies that require the sharing of materials and data. However, post-publication complaints regarding data sharing persist. Despite many efforts, the scientific community has failed to uniformly integrate these standards into their practices.

It is essential that the scientific community make standards for analyzing, reporting, providing access to, and stewardship of research data operational, while also establishing when requests for data amount to harassment or are unreasonable. A major challenge is that acceptable and optimal standards will vary among scientific disciplines because of proprietary, privacy, national security, and cost limitations.

Failure to make research data and related information accessible not only impedes science, it also breeds conflicts. Contention over paleoclimatic data was at the heart of the UEA/CRU e-mail exchanges. Beyond data handling, the relationship between science and society depends on the appropriate conduct of scientists in all that they do. We have recently published an up-to-date guide to responsible conduct in research, On Being a Scientist, whose standards should be energetically pursued throughout the scientific community.

Scientists urgently need to develop standards for data access that work in their fields and carefully examine how they carry out their work. We need to demonstrate to the public that science is indeed self-correcting and worthy of its trust.


    RALPH J. CICERONE
    President
    National Academy of Sciences


This column is based on Dr. Cicerone's editorial in
Science magazine, Feb. 5, 2009.



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