27 February 2015

Protecting Academic Freedom and Holding Ourselves Accountable

Posted by Margaret Leinen

Update (3 March 2015):

In the last few days we have received several comments regarding the situation with the Natural Resources Committee, and as such, I want to expand a bit on what I previously wrote here.

AGU unwaveringly supports a scientist’s right to academic freedom, and nothing in my previous post should be interpreted to suggest otherwise. We view the singling out of any individual or group of scientists by any entity – governmental, corporate or other – based solely on their interpretations of scientific research as a threat to that freedom.

Society needs scientists to make their expertise and scientific opinions available to policy makers and to the public, under the highest standards of transparency and integrity.

The rules of transparency affect us all equally, and therefore must be applied equally. Anything less could have a negative impact on scientists’ willingness to share their knowledge with the public, and in turn, their research’s ability to benefit humanity.

I sincerely hope that AGU members and other scientists will not become intimidated about providing testimony to Congress regarding their scientific expertise.

Original Post (27 February 2015):

On 24 February, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent letters to the leadership at seven academic institutions asking for information about specific professors’ funding sources and their testimony before Congress, among other issues. He did so in response to the recent news stories regarding the disclosure of funding sources and Dr. Wei-Hock Soon’s (a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) scientific publishing and testimony before Congress. (Read the letters)

Not surprisingly, this has prompted much discussion within the scientific community.

Transparency is a critical element of the scientific process, as is the ability of scientists to conduct their research unfettered by interference. As part of our ethical guidelines as a scientific society, AGU requires disclosure of funding sources and potential conflicts of interest — real or perceived.

To make sound decisions, the public and Congress need scientists to share and interpret unbiased and impartial information. The public also needs scientists who can pursue their varied research interests, discuss their science and report their findings to policy makers without fear or intimidation. In turn, Congress must be consistent in their application of disclosure requirements for both private and public funding sources. They must also ensure that disclosure requirements are not overly burdensome, nor in any way limit or interfere with academic freedom and discourse. For example, asking scientists to disclose who funded their research is not unreasonable — in fact, we require that same disclosure to publish in an AGU journal — but asking them to share drafts of testimony or communications about that testimony goes too far.

Clearly, there are implications for the scientific community as a result of this issue, and AGU will continue to defend academic freedom while also upholding the highest standards of scientific integrity. All scientists deserve the same protections afforded by academic freedom, just as they have the same obligations to act with integrity.

Margaret Leinen
President, American Geophysical Union