Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Dear Dr. Suresh:
My sincere and heartfelt congratulations on your being appointed Director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). It is indeed an honor for anyone. In particular it is a great achievement for you, considering the long road you traveled to eventually attain the post.
With the honor of your new post, of course, comes the responsibility. And according to Science Magazine (paywall) , you are already moving on that:
Even before his Senate confirmation in September to the 6-year post, Suresh began asking colleagues about the myriad issues that he will face at NSF.
I laud this effort. And I hope you will pardon me for using this venue to add another issue to your already-long list. However, it is a very important one.
Here’s the thing. It’s not complex or hard. You guys need to stop funding scofflaw scientists.
What do I mean by “scofflaw scientists”? The NSF has long-standing policies regarding the sharing and archiving of data that is gathered with NSF-distributed taxpayer funds. The earliest policy I know of is the 1989 NSF adoption of the recommendations of the National Science Board Report “Openness of Scientific Communication” (NSB 88-215). It says (emphasis mine):
1. Open Scientific and Engineering Communication
The NSF advocates and encourages open scientific communication. The NSF expects significant findings from research it supports to be submitted promptly for publication, with authorship that reflects accurately the contributions of those involved. It expects investigators to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the primary data, samples, physical collections, and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of the research. It also encourages awardees to share software and inventions or otherwise act to make such items or products derived from them widely useful and usable.
NSF will implement these policies in ways appropriate to the field of science and circumstances of research through the proposal review process; through award negotiations and conditions; and through appropriate supportand incentives for data cleanup, documentation, dissemination, storage, and the like. Adjustments and, where essential, exceptions may be allowed to accommodate the legitimate interests of investigators and to safeguard the rights of individuals and subjects, the validity of results, and the integrity of collections.
This very straightforward language from NSF has been clarified, and strengthened since then. For example, in 1991, the NSF U.S. Global Change Research Program said:
For those programs in which selected principal investigators have initial periods of exclusive data use, data should be made openly available as soon as they become widely useful. In each case the funding agency should explicitly define the duration of any exclusive use period.
Despite this, NSF continues to fund scientists who openly flout the policy and refuse to archive their data. The poster child for this group could be the glaciologist Dr. Lonnie Thompson. How bad is he? Well, let me say that I wouldn’t be surprised to see photos of his missing data on the sides of milk cartons.
Steve McIntyre’s now seven-year unsuccessful quest for Thompson’s elusive data, such as the widely cited but unarchived Himalayan ice core information for Dasupo, Dunde, and Gulaya, is detailed (inter alia) here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Despite Thompson’s years and years of dodging requests for his data, NSF has continued to fund him. Here’s a record of how much of our tax money has gone to Dr. Thompson and his wife (they often apply jointly for grants).
Most of the grants are either solely to Dr. Thompson (pictured), or to him and his wife. Only in a few grants are there other “co-investigators”. Data Source: NSF
Now let me be very clear here. I have no problem with the NSF funding scientists, as long as you keep President Eisenhower’s warning “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite” firmly in mind.
I’m also not concerned about the amount of the money that has gone to Dr. Thompson. Eleven megabucks is a big pile, it’s true, but a) that’s over 38 years, and b) it’s not cheap to mount an expedition to go to places like the Himalayas (pictured) and drill ice cores. I don’t think he’s getting rich off the NSF, to the contrary I suspect he’s squeezing the bucks to get more ice cores per dollar.
And curiously, I don’t even have much problem with Dr. Thompson being a scofflaw scientist. I don’t like it, but as long as there are rules and money in the same system, we can guarantee that somebody will try to game the system rules to get the money. This time it’s Lonnie’s turn.
But Dr. Suresh, I must tell you frankly, it angrifies my blood mightily when you keep funding scofflaw scientists like Thompson. I wax wroth, and utter venerable Anglo-Saxon imprecations, when the NSF doesn’t follow its own policies. And to my wife’s embarrassment, I confess that at times I find myself audibly urging anatomically inventive but ultimately improbable acts of sexual auto-congress on those government employees who are allowing this to happen.
Unfortunately, the NSF is not alone in this. Science and Nature Magazine, the flagship journals of scientific research, both have execrable records of enforcing their own policies on data archiving. The same is true of PNAS.
This is a part of the reason that the American public is so disenchanted with climate science. Fortunately, you are in a position to completely fix your agency’s part in the problem. The cure is simple:
1. Every time someone applies for a grant, you explain to them that they have to archive their data. If the applicant has had a grant before, ask them where the data sets from each of the previous grants have been archived. If they have unarchived data, no grant until they archive. To save your graphics department some money, here’s your new recruiting poster:
It’s not difficult. It doesn’t require Twelve Steps, it’s a One-Step program. As I said above, you need to stop funding scofflaw scientists.
So that’s my issue, and I trust you will see it right.
Next, my free advice, which is worth at least what you paid for it, perhaps more.
My advice is quite simple. Be public about what you do. If you decide to follow your own policies regarding data archiving and sharing, make an announcement. If a scientists’ funding is being held up until data is archived, make that fact available. This is the age of the internet and the Freedom of Information Act. If you expose all of your actions to the light of day, you don’t have to worry about them being exposed later (as they assuredly will be). Use the blogs such as WUWT to your advantage. Always remember that you are spending our money, so we are owed any and all information on how you are doing so. Answer requests from the public about data and policies promptly and without evasion. In short, make the operation of your agency as transparent as all good science should be.
My best wishes go with you. I do not envy you your new job, but given your track record I suspect you will do it well.
(PS – My thanks also to Steve McIntyre for his untiring efforts in the long quest to get Dr. Thompson to archive his data. It is a travesty that folks like the IPCC continue to rely upon Dr. Thompsons results, when he has consistently and repeatedly refused to show his work. That attitude wouldn’t make it past my high school chemistry teacher, and has no place in modern science.)