New Guide for Scientists: Responding to Criticism and Personal Attacks

September 27, 2012
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Scientists find themselves under scrutiny now more than ever before, and that scrutiny intensifies when their research is at the center of a public policy debate. Sometimes, this scrutiny helps educate the public and clarify what we know; at other times, this scrutiny is designed to confuse the public and policymakers. Today, UCS is releasing a guide that helps scientists deal with harassment and other unwarranted attacks on their integrity and their work.

Many people think of climate scientists when they think of harassment—and they’re not wrong. Climate scientists have faced subpoenas, intrusive open records requests, threatening phone calls, even dead rats on their doorsteps.

Science in an Age of Scrutiny cover

In Science in an Age of Scrutiny, scientists can find out more about the steps they can take to protect their reputations and the integrity of their research while contributing their expertise to the critical issues of the day.

But the problem extends far beyond one field of research. Earlier this year, British Petroleum successfully subpoenaed the email correspondence of scientists who volunteered (yes, volunteered!) to help solve the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Presumably, the company’s lawyers hope to find emails they can use out of context to cast doubt on the scientists’ conclusions about the amount of oil that gushed from the hole in the ocean floor.

A Long History of Attacks

Going after scientists whose research results are inconvenient to some special interests is not a new phenomenon. For decades, industries and their allies have gone after scientists whose research is threatening to their bottom line. Herbert Needleman, who studied the effects of lead on children. Irving Selikoff, who studied asbestos. Dr. Ingacio Chapela, who studies genetically modified organisms (these cases and more are profiled in our February 2012 report on corporate corruption of science).

Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) had this to say about biologist and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson earlier this week at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. at the Center for Science and Democracy Lewis M. Branscomb Forum:

“The underlying reliance on science is a bulwark against the anti- science attacks that infuse our national debate now. Rachel Carson was attacked by the chemical industry using a playbook that the tobacco industry first developed: Discredit the messenger, foster doubt and denial about the science, and call for additional research.

Whether it’s harmful chemicals, tobacco use, or climate science, all too often the affected industries employ a three-D strategy: discredit, deny, and delay.”

A New Tool in the Arsenal

Those who want to cast doubt on science have discovered a powerful new tool: going after scientists’ email correspondence in hopes they will find a sentence or a phrase to take out of context. Of course, the disclosure doesn’t go both ways; I would imagine that the BP lawyers and other corporate actors would not be too keen on releasing the contents of their internal deliberations. Nor should they be.

This, of course, doesn’t leave scientists off the hook when it comes to sharing the results of their research. Scientists have the responsibility to publicly share their expertise, especially when what they know has significant public policy implications. But they should be able to ask contentious research questions and learn more about the world around us without having to routinely look over their shoulder for the next attack.

So what’s the solution here? Certainly, institutions need to be better prepared to respond to requests for private information. States and the federal government need to explore ways to protect researchers while still allowing adequate access to information about how the government functions and makes decisions. Scientific organizations need to figure out how to protect their members, and by extension, their fields of research. And scientists need to think about how they, individually, can act to share their research while defending themselves and their scientific fields.

That’s where this guide comes in. It’s a starting point, helping researchers consider how to respond when faced not only with demands for private information but also with harassing correspondence, hostile bloggers, and attacks through mainstream sources.  Fortunately, there are many steps scientists can take to protect their reputations and the integrity of their research while contributing their expertise to the critical issues of the day.