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In the Societies: Professional Ethics Report Fall 2015

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Science and Human Rights Coalition Working Group Releases Statement on Codes of Ethics in Scientific and Professional Societies
by Ellen Platts

On November 30, 2015, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition’s Working Group on Ethics and Human Rights released a statement encouraging scientific and professional societies to explicitly make reference to human rights principles in their codes of ethics. The Chair of the Working Group, Maya Sabatello, commented that this new initiative is aimed at increasing the visibility of human rights in scientific communities.

The statement references the social responsibilities of scientists, engineers, and health professionals, noting that these responsibilities are closely connected to the realization of human rights for all people. The statement draws upon rights delineated in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and cites particular rights of importance to scientists, engineers, and health professionals, including “protection from torture,the right to privacy, the right to Internet freedom” and Article 15 of the ICESCR, the “right of everyone to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” [1]

Those particular rights are of importance both to scientists in the practice of their work and to all people who, in the case of Article 15, rely on scientists, engineers, and health professionals to contribute their skills and expertise to human welfare. The statement includes suggested language that professional societies can use to move towards incorporating human rights into their ethics codes or statements:

"The [name of society] affirms its commitment to the practice of [discipline] consistent with promoting the human rights of all people, including members of their profession. The [name of society] will strive to use the knowledge and skills embedded in our discipline to advance the cause of human rights worldwide, according to the highest ethical standards – respectful of the right of people to benefit from the work our discipline has to offer." [1]

The Working Group on Ethics and Human Rights is also developing a project on big data and human rights that will explore the challenges that arise at the intersection of big data, ethics, and human rights. Information about the Working Group and its projects is available at page/area-work-ii-ethics-and-human-rights


Scientific Societies Weigh in on Congressional Subpoenas
by Gaurav Dhiman

A June 26 report published in Science has led to a battle between Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The report undercuts a popular argument of global warming skeptics that there has been a “hiatus” in the increase of global surface temperature, instead finding that the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. [1]

Since the article was published, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology made three written requests for information (July 14, September 10, and September 25) before issuing a subpoena for internal communications on October 13 to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan. NOAA responded to the Committee’s inquiries with briefings on July 16 and October 19, letters, and informal staff communication. [2, 3, 8] In a statement to Nature, NOAA stated “Because the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse among scientists, those documents were not provided to the Committee.” [4]

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) weighed in with a letter to Rep. Smith on November 4. [5] The letter asserts, “The demand for internal communications associated with their research places a burden on NOAA scientists, imposes a chilling effect on future communication among scientists, and potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property.” It goes on to say, “The advancement of science depends on investigators having the freedom to carry out research objectively and without the fear of threats or intimidation whether or not their results are expedient or popular.” The letter concludes by encouraging the House Committee to “promote scientific advancement and to welcome the self-correcting nature of the peer-review process within the international scientific community.”

Six other scientific societies reiterated AMS’s message with a November 24 letter to Rep. Smith [6], expressing concern with his inquiry, stating “Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial.

Science cannot thrive when policymakers—regardless of party affiliation— use policy disagreements as a pretext to attack scientific conclusions without public evidence.” The lead signatory of the letter is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Individuals have also shown their support of NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan’s resistance to Rep. Smith’s subpoena. Over 600 scientists, engineers and former NOAA employees signed two separate letters [7, 8] dated December 7, writing “thank you for standing up for the scientific integrity and independence in research critical to meeting some of the most pressing challenges we face as a nation. We urge you to continue to resist any unwarranted congressional investigations that would contribute to stifling the scientific process and even intimidate NOAA scientists and their collaborators.” They go on to warn, “turning over scientists’ correspondence and other information to the committee would significantly damage NOAA’s ability to conduct science by putting NOAA’s scientific independence at risk, and making it more difficult for NOAA scientists to collaborate with peers in academia and the private sector.” [8]

Rep. Smith appealed to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on November 13 and 18, questioning the scientific integrity of the study stating, “Because the Karl study was apparently prematurely rushed to publication, the timing of its release raises concerns that it was expedited to fit the Administrations aggressive climate agenda.” [9] On behalf of Secretary Pritzker, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan responded to Rep. Smith in a November 20 letter that, “NOAA’s scientific integrity policy sets out high standards of protection for the independence of science from political manipulation, and establishes a rigorous process to investigate allegations of misconduct . . . We note that the study was submitted to Science for consideration in December 2014, and Science made the decision to publish it in June 2015 after a rigorous evaluation and peer review.” [10]

Rep. Smith raised further questions of integrity in a November 26 Op-Ed in the Washington Times, “…NOAA continues to rely upon biased science in pursuit of a predetermined outcome. That’s not good science, it’s science fiction.” Rep. Smith cites the study’s focus on “often flawed” surface temperature readings instead of “highly calibrated” and more reliable atmospheric satellite data. [11] As Rep. Smith writes, “I believe that federal employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have altered temperature data to try to refute an 18-year plateau in global temperatures that numerous other scientific studies have reported.” [12]

Due to the lack of success since issuing the subpoena, in a letter to Commerce Secretary Pritzker on December 1, Rep. Smith amended his original request, now asking only for documents and communications by NOAA officials, exempting scientists involved in the study. However, Rep. Smith notes, “…this prioritization does not alleviate NOAA’s obligation to respond fully to the Committee’s subpoena.” [13]

NOAA responded by delivering documents to the committee on December 15. NOAA spokesperson Ciaran Clayton said in a statement, “We appreciate that the Chairman’s latest letter refocused the committee’s request away from NOAA scientists. The documents NOAA delivered to the Committee contain emails among NOAA communications and front office staff discussing the routine mechanics of a communications plan for the paper.” [14] Rep. Smith responded in a statement, “I am encouraged by NOAA’s acknowledgment of its obligation to produce documents and communications in response to the Committee’s lawfully-issued subpoena. I am also glad to see that NOAA has committed to produce additional items as they are identified. We will carefully review these documents and expect additional productions from NOAA.” [15]

[1] content/348/6242/1469.abstract
[6] documents/2600451/scientists-letter.pdf
[8] documents/2641996/Former-NOAA-Employees-Letter-12-7-15.pdf
[12] /12/10/opinion/rep-lamar-smith-questions-agencys-revised-climate-data.html?ref=international&_r=5
[15] press-releases/smith-responds-noaa-delivery-documents-and-communications

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