George Monbiot

Image: Data Debate

The Great Data Debate

Image: Data Debate

Last Tuesday (6th December) saw Imperial College London host the Index on Censorship sponsored “Data Debate: is transparency bad for science?”, a panel discussion on the question: Is transparency bad for science?  The panel was split, and the debate feisty.  You can view a video of the entire debate on-line here

In the red corner, arguing for full transparency in science, were Guardian environmental columnist George Monbiot and Professor David Colquhoun, ex-Chair of Pharmacology at UCL.  They were offered a helping hand by the somewhat less than impartial Chair, Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship and co-author of “Free Speech is not for sale” (the clue is in the title).

In the blue corner, arguing for a more pragmatic approach to openness, were the House of Lords cross-bencher and philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill, and Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark Walport.

On the bell, Baroness O’Neill opened proceedings by observing that data transparency does not necessarily lead to communication, particularly when the data sets concerned are both complex and voluminous.  First punches swiftly followed in the form of George Monbiot’s opening statement, in which he challenged the Baroness’s contention that such data should only be provided to the “adequately technically competent”.  He was temporarily reined-in by red corner coach Jo Glanville, but the gap between the two positions was clear: transparency within reason, versus full disclosure of data, no matter who requests it.

Sir Mark Walport weighed in cautiously on the Baroness’s side, arguing that transparency in science is a good idea in principle, but that it has its limits.  The point was secured with the charming analogy that raw data is much like raw sewage: it may contain the odd nugget, but can be harmful if misapplied.  Sir Mark also warily flew the flag for commercial science in response to George Monbiot’s brief but impassioned tirade against academic publishers, pointing out that while charging the Wellcome Trust to see the results of Wellcome funded studies is a bit rich, some commercial data is necessarily sensitive and, at the end of the day, “capitalism isn’t all bad”.

Finally Professor David Colquhoun entered the ring, seeming to represent the dogged and jaded working scientist, somewhat offended by the reference to his life’s work as sewage but happy to share the lot with anyone who wants it – although “good luck to you” if you think you can make head or tail of it.

Needless to say, green room concerns that the panel were in too close agreement for a lively debate proved unfounded.  The discussion between Baroness O’Neill and George Monbiot was particularly lively, with Monbiot Twittering after the event: “at one point I thought she was going to nut me”.  (If it came to a fist fight, my money was on the Baroness.)

Overall however, despite an impartial Chair and some slightly suspect question selection, the debate, to my mind, ended in a draw.

While a greater degree of transparency would likely aid scientific progress, the right to freedom of information must be balanced against the right to privacy, particularly in the area of personal communications.  Likewise, commercial considerations must be taken into account and given due weight – while pharma-bashing, in particular, seems universally popular, biting the hand that feeds us doesn’t get us any closer to a cure for cancer.  Moreover, the benefits of total transparency must be weighed against both the time costs and direct financial impact of the associated bureaucracy.  Finally, I can’t help but agree with Sir Mark Walport’s point that if we feel the need to legislate for openness in publicly-funded science, something has gone very wrong; in which case, we would perhaps be better off focusing our efforts on finding the cure, rather than alleviating the symptoms.

Victoria Charlton is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College