02 June 2010

Science, Politics, PR and Social Media

One of the biggest complaints I had about the previous administration was its hostility toward science on everything from climate change to sex education to stem cell research.   Scientific reports were edited and censored to conform to a political agenda.  Scientists were marginalized.  These guys were "creating their own reality," and facts weren't simply inconvenient, they were irrelevant.  There's a book all about it.

So when I see something like this it makes my blood boil.  Scientists are apparently being told by a government agency (in this case, NOAA) that any data from the gulf oil spill they collect while on that agency's boats may only be publicized with that agency's permission.   The debate right now is over the existence of huge subsurface plumes of oil - a group of scientists (including these folks - GO DAWGS) have collected data that suggests the size, location and density of these plumes, while BP's CEO says flatly "there are no plumes."  Right now the head of NOAA is calling the scientists' data "circumstantial."

I'm not a scientist, so let's just assume these oil plumes, if they exist, are probably "bad."  

I really don't have a problem with the NOAA head being careful and hesitant to come to any conclusions on the plumes - the language of science is typically cautious, focusing on limitations and generally leaving open the possibility of error.  (Yet another PR challenge for scientists.)  But I strongly believe that if government wants to regain trust - particularly when it comes to issues of science - they need to err on the side of sharing, not concealing.   Here's why.

Scientists share data.  It's what they do.  They collect data, analyze it, and then publish it.  That's essentially the entire job. Telling a scientist to stop sharing data is like telling a Red Sox fan to stop chanting "Yankees Suck."  Social media has helped scientists share data faster and more effectively than ever before.  Seriously, look at what the folks at Georgia and the University of South Florida and LSU and Southern Mississippi are doing. It's amazing stuff.  Then look more generally at what platforms like the Public Library of Science's PLOS One can do, providing open access to scientific research and then promoting that research.  No matter how hard you try to hide, say, a massive undersea oil plume - these folks are gonna find it and let others know.

Now of course the old political axiom "it's not the crime, it's the cover-up" comes into play.  RULE NUMBER ONE in PR:  NEVER LIE.  Nothing good ever comes of it.  The truth reveals itself one drip at a time, and you just look like the guy who can't plug a massive leak.


PunditMom said...

And since they're collecting the data on the taxpayer's dime, doesn't that mean we have a right to see it?

David said...

that's actually quite an important point, Joanne - I know NIH requires that sort of thing. Not sure what the rules are at NOAA, which I think is housed in the Dept of Commerce.

Anonymous said...

"Scientific reports were edited and censored to conform to a political agenda." Kinda funny, that sounds like the global warming "science."