Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Freedom of Speech in Government Science"

David Resnik has a good article in the recent issue of the National Academy of Science's Issues in Science and Technology dealing with the need both to guarantee freedom of speech for government scientists and to assure that those scientists when the speak do so with proper respect for the ethics of science, including refraining from publication of low quality data or excessive extrapolation of the meaning of their results.

Resnik recommends a watchdog committee to oversee the rights to freedom of speech of government scientists. This seems to me a very good idea. He suggests that this might be done by the AAAS, and I would suggest that it might also be done by the National Academies.

I would dispute one of Resnik's conclusions. He correctly recognizes that governments have to make decisions on the allocation of scarce resources, and states:
Government agencies use peer review committees to decide which research proposals should be funded. Scientists who are denied funding by a federal agency are still free to conduct their research using funds from a different source, such as a private company, university, or foundation.
Unfortunately, political ideology sometimes trumps the recommendations of impartial peer review panels, and I think Resnik may underestimate the power of political officials to retaliate financially against scientists who displease them or threaten to challenge their pet myths with scientific observations. I think government scientists and scientists seeking government funding need institutionalized protection mechanisms against inappropriate political interference with the funding process. Fortunately, a free press, the Congressional checks to administration power, and non-governmental organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the AAAS provide some such mechanisms. Still, more might be done, perhaps by reviving a scientific advisory body for the Congress extending the functions of the long lost Office of Technology Assessment.

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