Ethics / Research

Secrets in Science and Public Funded Research

In science experiments, you do it once and it works, maybe you were lucky. You do it twice, it might be a real result. But when you describe how to do it, and someone else successfully repeats it – that’s a paper. Making it clear enough for someone else to get it, is a requirement of science journal publication.

But today, how true to the goal of sharing are the papers about our public funded science research? Engineer Mike Macartney explores the idea of secrecy in science in his new article.

Shhhsss, I Have a Secret

by Mike Macartney

A post on Bloomberg recently addressed the question of how much detailed information should go into a published science report when the work is funded by public money. The authors, Stodden and Arbesman, lament that today only limited detail is published with public funded science and experiments cannot be duplicated from it.

Consider that the Central Intelligence Agency collects open source information. And China collects technical, scientific, and national defense information from open source as well as from extensive illegal network hacking.

Historically, secret scientific information has been handled in different ways. During WWII the US allowed the USSR to steal uncounted volumes of trade and technical information out of the country in diplomatic pouches through US bases. It was tacit payment for fighting the Nazis on the Eastern Front as documented in Richard Rhodes’ book Dark Sun, The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Now, President Obama and the Pentagon have shifted US defense policy to focus on Asia, cyber war, and economic security as stated objectives of US national defense.

Most institutions who do public funded scientific research expect to monetize that work later. They make money on successful projects through licensing to established companies. Money also comes in from formation of new companies with venture funding. Government laboratories, Department of Defense (DoD), and NASA have long established mechanisms for public-private partnerships and licensing of research results through SBIR/STTR programs. One prime example is the NASA partnership with Spacex, a start-up commercial rocket builder in Southern California.

Does just classifying scientific results “secret” to protect them work?  Not for good science. Science has always been a team sport. One person is never the inventor of a new science or discovery. Science and technical collaboration almost always crosses national boundaries. Technical information is spread instantly by the Internet and Internet search. Internet and search cut out the middle man, they “disinterimediate” everything that is about information now.  Middlemen in newspapers, books, music, movies, TV, libraries, and governments now are replaced by the medium itself. Witness the Arab Spring.

All young and many older people expect that information will be available in an open forum. The mechanism itself is reshaping the brain. People think differently about information, secrets, and privacy now.

Most people in the developed world with access to the Internet expect to have what was once sensitive information available to them. They also expect to have a say in what it means and how policy makers use it. Science and technology are no different here. Have you ever sent an email to your representative telling them how you wish them to vote on an issue?  Witness the dysfunction in the US Congress and the polarized political parties who are now no longer allowed to make deals in a back room in secret anymore. Ever sign an electronic petition to them complaining about a vote? Witness this story appearing on a blog and propagated by social networks, where readers are free to share, discuss, add to, and disagree with it in a public forum.

Science works best when it is open and information flows freely. Businesses require controlling information, like patents, in order to function. New ways of thinking about information are evolving rapidly. Some nations and people will try to take information to increase their own economic power over the people who create the information in the first place. And they will not contribute their own information back to the discussion, again for their own imagined benefit.

Almost any information can be used as a weapon or as a peaceful tool, science in particular. Economic information can be a weapon in a business or a nation.

Welcome to the show that never ends. Shhhssss, you already have an eTicket in your email.


Related articles you may also be interested in:

Information Sharing and Lethal Virus Research 

No It’s Not Greek or Latin It’s Healthcare



About the Author – Mike Macartney

Mike holds a BS and MS in mechanical engineering with emphasis in heat transfer and computational fluid dynamics. As a staff system engineer he developed advanced cooling systems for more than 15 different spacecraft and missiles, ranging from cryogenically cooled sensors and pre-amplifiers to on-orbit problem resolution of failing spacecraft. Mike has managed over 200 proposals for advanced aerospace systems, and terrestrial IT systems and custom code development for corporate customers.

Mike has advised start-up companies and high-tech incubators wishing to “spin-in” technologies from NASA and the National Laboratories as well as helped Russian enterprises do business in Silicon Valley. Mike has been a founder in three start-up companies for enterprise SW and publishing as well as a trade show manager for NASA technology transfer activities, and an executive liaison manager to facilitate business cooperation between aggressive Fortune 500 competitors. Mike has developed reengineered business processes for quality control, proposal development, and lean manufacturing.

He currently operates a small publishing company, Shoot Your Eye Out Publishing.

One thought on “Secrets in Science and Public Funded Research

  1. Pingback: Information Sharing and Lethal Virus Research « Science rEvolution

Share your reactions here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s