The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is rolling out five principles of scientific integrity. This ambitious plan will attempt to repair the reputation of science in society, which may prove tricky.
Allow for Dissent
Scientific dissent is healthy. It leads to questioning. While hypotheses are necessary for true scientific research, sometimes the answers we get aren’t the ones we expected. Research is only successful when scientists change or pivot the moment that “more credible evidence than the previous consensus” arises, stated guest blogger Matt Nolan in a Scientific American article entitled, “Dissent in Science Is Essential–up to a Point.”
We get into trouble, according to Nolan, when we accept theories that lead to dangerous outcomes. Like refusing to accept AIDS or the usefulness of vaccinations. “It is the public who pay the price when marginalized science informs policy. History reminds us this is unsafe territory,” Nolan said.
Whole of government
This just basically means that all of the scientific enterprise is responsible for its own integrity, but that the principles that apply to scientific organizations should also apply to all federal agencies that organize, propagate and communicate about science and technology.
Science at the policy table
This premise is proving to be difficult because it is really hard to inform policy when the administration and the U.S. Senate are at odds politically. Wanting to influence policy with real science is a laudable intention, but political quagmire has sunk other good intentions in the past.
There are many success stories in this area, however. One such researcher, Sandra Guerra Thompson, J.D., law professor at the University of Houston, was able to turn her research about, and her knowledge of, corruption and scandal in police organizations into a new policy. “Bad science wreaks havoc,” said Guerra Thompson in her book, “Cops in Lab Coats.” She was even asked to testify before Congress to encourage forensics labs to be independent entities, rather than police organizations. Although an uphill battle, science needs to inform local and national government to follow the science.
Transparency in sharing science
Scientists should be able to talk freely about their unclassified research at any point during their process. “Transparency” works to combat the negative perception of scientists and science as frightening and unknowable. Kevin C. Elliott, in the article A Taxonomy of Transparency in Science, published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, put it this way: “For scientists, transparency is a way to promote reproducibility, progress, and trust in research. For philosophers of science, transparency can help address the value-ladenness of scientific research in a responsible way.”
The White House OSTP stated: “Violations of scientific integrity should be considered on par with violations of government ethics, with comparable consequences.” Once again, keeping scientist and researchers accountable for their conduct it boils down to good intentions. But could a closer look at scientific misconduct lead to scapegoating of certain scientists?
Or would it curb bad behavior by those who would attempt scientific fraud? There are even studies going on about who would assume accountability on a team project or a published article with multiple authors — especially if the integrity of the work is called into question.
The Big Idea
The White House’s OSTP said that these five premises will guide OSTP’s ongoing assessment and coordination of federal scientific integrity policy. Let’s hope that distrust of science is nearing its end, but there is nothing more to do than to do better.