What happens when a leading world government on the forefront of scientific discovery holds an election, and the newly elected officials and their retinue revoke access to scientific information and important data paid for and used by taxpayers, citizens, and the general public? And what happens when these new leaders then undercut funding that could be used to close gaps in scientific and public health data that clearly led to deaths and disease?
We’re finding out.
Lack of access to raw data from governmental sources curtails the independence of scientists to conduct research, formulate new hypotheses, and validate results, while preventing citizens from monitoring issues of civic and scientific interest and importance. Information is power, and those newly in power seem reluctant to share either.
These new and apparently accelerating information limitations aren’t strictly aimed at scientists. Secrecy is the new normal. For example, the White House has been barring cameras and other recording devices from press briefings.
The United States government will not be allowing camera coverage of today's WH briefing. Audio only… embargoed until the end.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) June 26, 2017
White House press briefings are taxpayer-funded events in a taxpayer-funded building hosted by taxpayer-funded employees of the state. There is no privacy provision or allowance. But political expediency now clearly trumps decades of norms and the logic of who is paying for what.
For scientists, policymakers seeking evidence for regulations or laws, or citizens simply wanting to know what is going on, this is only the tip of the iceberg. In April, one of the most valuable global resources for climate change science was removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, with one expert who ran it for more than five years writing:
. . . it should be obvious to anyone how this senseless action runs counter to principles of good governance and scientific integrity. Some 20 years in the making, the breadth and quality of the website’s content was remarkable. It lasted through Democratic and Republican administrations, partly because its information mirrored the findings of the mainstream scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences, other federal agencies and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This is not the only abrogation of the deal with taxpayers and citizens (as rights are not purely transactional in nature, but broader than that). In February, information about animal welfare was removed from the US Department of Agriculture site, requiring taxpayers to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn what is going on in more than 1,200 labs and more than 6,000 other animal facilities, including puppy mills and other such places. Under the ruse of protecting privacy, attempts to change this decision have not fared well in the courts so far, despite the ways such information has been used to curb abuses in the past. The city of Chicago has gone so far as to put a climate page from the prior administration up as it was, to preserve the information. The city of Boston also followed suit for the EPA data.
Lest we forget, Brewster Kahle saw this coming, and mirrored his Internet Archive to Canada once President Trump was elected.
Missing data is also a problem with life-threatening implications. Five local and state officials in Michigan face involuntary manslaughter charges for failing to divulge public health threats related to impure drinking water, which led to a number of deaths and the impairment of an unknown number of children. Recent budget cuts proposed for the EPA would only leave more cities and municipalities in the dark, without the funding to gather and analyze water purity data. As Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public health, is quoted:
The data gaps are so huge. It is abominable. We have a huge number of people in this country living completely in the dark.
Our industry’s economic and financial discussions about open access (OA) business models have focused on what expenses and value publishers contribute, with the Gold OA model emerging as a viable path forward. The suppression of scientific and cultural data now facing us has only slight parallels with OA publishing, as papers are not results or data, merely interpretations of reports and summaries of results. Research reports are not raw data, but are based on raw data. The fate of raw data in many fields is unsettled. However, the fate of raw data generated by governments is clearer, with traditions supporting data availability. Currently, the OPEN Government Data Act is sitting idle in Congress, however. Traditions only go so far.
There are no non-taxpayer-funded value additions to these data sets by separate for-profit or non-profit entities. These data are collected and managed using taxpayer funding, as are the sites that once hosted them (or those that have taken over, in the case of the cities preserving data). There is an uninterrupted line from data acquisition to presentation.
Worse, the bureaucrats making these decisions are themselves taxpayer-funded. Public health crises like Flint surely require public officials, paid by taxpayers, to make the government function for the citizens’ benefit. And removal of public information in its entirety is categorically different from a disagreement about business models. The imperatives here are much more direct and immediate, the affront to society more direct.
US citizens and scientists can no longer understand what is happening in the world around them despite the taxes they’ve paid to support work they wanted done
Ultimately, these impingements on rights and information represent a loss of independence for US citizens and scientists, who now can no longer understand what is happening in the world around them despite the taxes they’ve paid to support work they wanted done, despite their rights as citizens to information generated by their own government on their behalf. Instead, a small cabal of extremists have gained control of the levers of power, and are effectively erasing scientific and cultural information they find threatening or inconvenient, while proposing radical defunding of the agencies that created these awkward facts in the first place.
This is not freedom, scientific progress, or proper governmental functioning.
The level of fervor that once informed the OA debates needs to be turned to these new, deeper, and darker threats to scientific discourse, academic freedom, and citizenship. At least one OA advocate has pitched a long-shot bid for the US Senate, yet governmental suppression of scientific information barely gets a mention in his platform. The game has changed, and suddenly. We are now seeing historical data actually being erased, with state governments, groups like the Sunlight Foundation and the Internet Archive, and individual scientists scrambling to maintain the we’d compiled collectively.
What was once “taxation without representation” is becoming “taxation without information,” which constitutes a particularly galling turn of events in the Information Age. With all of the above in mind, this post ends with a quote from George Orwell:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Have a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday.