Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Foreword: Sarbanes-Oxley for Science

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Foreword: Sarbanes-Oxley for Science

Article excerpt



Science is built on the sharing of information. Scientists generate knowledge to explain the workings of the natural world, building on the information produced and shared by other scientists. Some scientists see this construction in moral or ethical terms; (1) according to Albert Einstein, for example, "The right to search for truth implies also a duty: one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true." (2)

Science flourishes best in conditions of the open and public exchange of ideas, methods, findings, and interpretations. Openness facilitates vetting new findings and new theories through continued study and analysis. The open exchange of ideas is valued not only because it facilitates the advancement of science, but also because it is concordant with the ideals of a democratic society.

The principles and practice of open science can come into conflict with individual or corporate actions intended to limit public access to information, or with government laws and policies that restrict access to results and ideas. Sometimes these restrictions are needed to preserve important values, such as individual privacy, or to further certain policy objectives, such as protecting national security or the economic benefits derived from innovation. However, there are also potential costs to restricting certain kinds of information; for example, when such suppression limits public knowledge about health risks, it can prevent people and their government from protecting public health.

The best known and most tragic examples of data sequestration contributing to public health disasters are tobacco and asbestos. The tobacco industry developed extensive structures and policies to hide scientific studies whose results were detrimental to the industry's health. (3) The confidentiality that accompanies the attorney-client relationship was a particularly important tool to sequester data on the powerful, terrible effects of cigarette smoke on the health of smokers. (4) Similarly, an untold portion of the worldwide epidemic of asbestos-related disease--currently estimated at 100,000 deaths each year--might have been prevented had the manufacturers of asbestos products not systematically hidden the results of inhalation studies linking asbestos with lung cancer, performed in the 1940s. (5)

Of course, the concealment of scientific evidence has not been limited to the tobacco and asbestos contexts, and less well-known episodes of data sequestration have occurred in relation to several industrial chemicals. (6) More recently, instances in which drug manufacturers withheld study results unfavorable to their product but clearly important in terms of patient treatment (7) have been the impetus to major changes in the registration and reporting of clinical trials in biomedical literature.

Concerned about these issues, the Planning Committee of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) (8) convened a symposium to explore the scientific and social consequences of failure to disclose scientific knowledge. The symposium placed special emphasis on the tension between the imperative to protect public health and safety and provisions restricting access to documents whose publication or dissemination might result in financial harm. The second Coronado Conference, (9) Sequestered Science: The Consequences of Undisclosed Knowledge (Coronado II), brought leading scholars and practitioners from the fields of philosophy of science, law, ethics, business, and public health to New York City on October 14-15, 2004, to discuss these issues. This issue of Law and Contemporary Problems includes papers presented at Coronado II and others solicited for inclusion in this publication.

Science has the connotation of openness; the phrase "sequestered science" is intentionally discordant. An objective of this collection of articles is to examine that discordance. …

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