The Challenges of Sharing Data in an Era of Politicized Science

Editorial by Howard Bauchner in JAMA: “The goal of making science more transparent—sharing data, posting results on trial registries, use of preprint servers, and open access publishing—may enhance scientific discovery and improve individual and population health, but it also comes with substantial challenges in an era of politicized science, enhanced skepticism, and the ubiquitous world of social media. The recent announcement by the Trump administration of plans to proceed with an updated version of the proposed rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” stipulating that all underlying data from studies that underpin public health regulations from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must be made publicly available so that those data can be independently validated, epitomizes some of these challenges. According to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler: “Good science is science that can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. That is why we’re moving forward to ensure that the science supporting agency decisions is transparent and available for evaluation by the public and stakeholders.”

Virtually every time JAMA publishes an article on the effects of pollution or climate change on health, the journal immediately receives demands from critics to retract the article for various reasons. Some individuals and groups simply do not believe that pollution or climate change affects human health. Research on climate change, and the effects of climate change on the health of the planet and human beings, if made available to anyone for reanalysis could be manipulated to find a different outcome than initially reported. In an age of skepticism about many issues, including science, with the ability to use social media to disseminate unfounded and at times potentially harmful ideas, it is challenging to balance the potential benefits of sharing data with the harms that could be done by reanalysis.

Can the experience of sharing data derived from randomized clinical trials (RCTs)—either as mandated by some funders and journals or as supported by individual investigators—serve as examples as a way to safeguard “truth” in science….

Although the sharing of data may have numerous benefits, it also comes with substantial challenges particularly in highly contentious and politicized areas, such as the effects of climate change and pollution on health, in which the public dialogue appears to be based on as much fiction as fact. The sharing of data, whether mandated by funders, including foundations and government, or volunteered by scientists who believe in the principle of data transparency, is a complicated issue in the evolving world of science, analysis, skepticism, and communication. Above all, the scientific process—including original research and reanalysis of shared data—must prevail, and the inherent search for evidence, facts, and truth must not be compromised by special interests, coercive influences, or politicized perspectives. There are no simple answers, just words of caution and concern….(More)”.