Science data wants to be shared, panelists agree

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

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Government agency officers, journalists and others described barriers as well as recent improvements in making government scientific information more available to the public in a program at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., today.

“Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information,” the first Lewis M. Branscomb Science and Democracy Forum, was sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the First Amendment Center.

“The working premise of this meeting is that widespread access to scientific information results in better public policy and better private-sector decision-making,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Panelists and questioners identified a range of problems and positives before an audience of scientists, Freedom of Information advocates and compliance officers, and journalists.

Among the problems: government stonewalling and overuse of “classified information” and “trade secrets” as excuses to keep data under wraps. Also, some scientific information is not in the public domain and is restricted by intellectual-property rights.

Several speakers noted that although the Freedom of Information Act has been strengthened under the Obama administration, the promises of more openness have not come fully to pass.

The administration has been “schizophrenic” in that despite putting large amounts of scientific data online, too often it has restricted its experts from discussing and interpreting the information, said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of OMB Watch.

Among the positives: The Obama administration has greatly increased the amount of information available online. The “gold standard” for access is the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said Lisa Swirsky, an analyst at Consumers Union.

She and, on another panel, Miriam Nisbet of the National Archives and Records Administration, noted that in the works is an inter-agency FOIA portal that would provide one-stop shopping for the public’s scientific questions.

It will tell people “where to look, what requests have been made, what information has already been released” on science-related topics, Nisbet said.

Panelists including Curtis Brainard of Columbia Journalism Review and Dan Vergano of USA Today offered advice to other reporters covering science through government data.

“Reporters should never take online data at face value,” Brainard said. It’s good that government is putting data online, but “it’s a one-way street” — “data do not speak for themselves.”

“You need to talk to the people who collected and analyzed that data to interpret it,” he said.

Vergano addressed the issue of “false balance” in science news — the idea that even when a large majority of scientists believe evolution, global warming or other scientific notions to be convincingly established, it is necessary to interview a “denier” for balance.

“We don’t do that so much anymore,” Vergano said. “Stories don’t necessarily have to be balanced with a denier.”

One difficulty, he said, is a “poverty of technical knowledge in journalism.” Amid newsroom budget cuts, science reporters have almost disappeared, leaving a vacuum of understanding of scientific research.

Several government agency representatives discussed problems and positives from their perspectives, as well.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, has made information more accessible, but it must wait till product investigations are complete before disclosing details. Further, she said, by law the CPSC must give 15 days’ notice to companies before release information about them.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, said Gina McCarthy, an assistant administrator, challenges include disinformation among the public, archaic systems for data collection and limited resources.

Official Robert Haddad of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted a tension between putting information out immediately during a crisis versus interpreting it and providing context. He said there was always a degree of uncertainty in data involving disasters such as hurricanes and oil spills.

Among the good news about government scientific information: consumerproducts.gov at the CPSC, a database of info on consumer products, including people describing product problems.

EPA air-quality index data is widely available, color-coded and easy to understand for those who have or whose family members have asthma. And greenhouse-gas data are being collected interactively to prevent data-reporting problems, enabling quality control and quicker release.

NOAA is developing better tools to manage oil spills, in part through data collection.

“Science needs to be transparent within government and outside government,” Haddad said.

An audience question prompted a discussion of who can speak for agencies to the press and public, and the trouble reporters often have in getting past public-information offices to reach experts.

Haddad said NOAA scientists could speak for themselves, without representing the entire agency.

Tenenbaum said CPSC responses needed to be coordinated through the communications office, which figures out who’s most qualified to answer. McCarthy said not every scientist in EPA had the credibility to speak for the entire agency, and echoed Tenenbaum’s remarks about the communications office.

Nisbet, who directs the NARA’s Office of Government Information Services, emphasized the value of journalists’ “getting to know who the FOIA officer is at an agency” to help gain access to scientific experts who can answer questions.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., long active in Congress on energy and environmental issues, concluded the program with remarks on how government scientific information can inform the public and hold accountable those who create dangerous products or situations.

“Government-sponsored research has been crucial to exposure” of threat to health and the environment, he said. “Science can be a powerful tool for change when it is accessible and available to the public.”

Markey attacked industries that follow a “3-D” strategy of “discredit, deny and delay” when information exposes problems with their products. Polluters and others are “trying to rig the fight” in favor of profits and stockholders, he said, working against public welfare by undermining our ability to deal with problems.

“Access to information can help us avoid climate catastrophe. It can also help during a catastrophe.”

Markey demanded public access to the “spill cam” during the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The data made public exposed BP’s downplaying of the rate of oil flow — not 5,000 barrels a day, but 62,000. Responders needed to know the truth in order to contain the spill, he said.

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