Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Climate change, raw data, funding, and access

Interesting kerfuffle going on here, sparked by an amateur researcher and climate change skeptic's demand for the raw data (in this case, records of tree ring measurements) used by a British university professor to publish a paper on global warming.
The academic response is essentially "We did the work to gather this data: we should decide how and to whom it's released."
As much as I agree with the emotional response by a professor and his colleagues who did a lot of hard fieldwork to gather information, and more hard work to analyze it, it's hard for me to grasp the notion that research funded by taxpayers should be kept away from taxpayers, either based on an intellectual property argument or a belief that said taxpayers lack the training to interpret the data and may publish misleading results. I keep coming back to the simple fact that taxpayers funded the work, paying the salaries of the people gathering data.
I agree data should be kept private for a reasonable period to give the prof involved the chance to publish first on it. But I can't agree with keeping it locked away after that.
The official at the UK Information Commissioner's Office who ruled on this request under the UK's Freedom of Information law sounds like he thought the same way - also, that he was annoyed the university had gone to great lengths, including outright lying about how hard it would be to assemble the data, in order to keep it secret.
Sure, untrained members of the public may trumpet all kinds of misleading results - but, for all the public knows, the professor could be doing the same thing, only no one will ever know it if the data's kept secret. Even if the professor considers the requester a crank - and even if he has good reason to so consider the requester - the policy argument doesn't change.
Unless there's a national security reason to classify data, the general policy should be that, once the research has been published, the people who paid for the raw data have a right to see it.

UPDATE 4/48/2010: Wow, I set off a firestorm on the National Association of Science Writers list. Some of the points made were that funding is often commingled so that it's hard to say what's publicly funded and what isn't, that someone has to pay for and organize the effort of getting the data into a form that can be passed on, and that (and I reject this last one) the public is paying for the report, not the data (to me, the latter is part of the former.)

No comments: