When Scientific Data Clash With Political Interests

When well-founded scientific conclusions and politics intersect, politicians and administrators are apt to seize on inevitable scientific ambiguities to discount inconvenient results. This points up an enduring challenge: At what point does professional responsibility impel scientists to defy their masters and press their case publicly? When is it wiser to remain silent?

Two cases highlight the choices scientists face when considering their action on issues that could affect the public good.

On Sept. 22, 1979, the Vela 6911 surveillance satellite saw a flash of light off the tip of South Africa. That observation - together with undersea sound waves and a ripple in the outer atmosphere - convinced scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory that a nuclear device had exploded.

There was suspicion that South Africa had conducted a clandestine test with Israel's help. South African officials denied it. Israel said nothing. Vela 6911 was operating beyond its designed life. One of its key sensors had failed. The Carter administration found enough ambiguity in the data to duck the issue.

Now the truth is out. Israel's Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper reported in April that South African deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad confirmed that Vela 6911 had seen a nuclear test. South Africa had given Israel 550 tons of raw uranium and other aid in exchange for help with atomic-bomb designs.

Citing this in a recent public statement, the Los Alamos lab notes that the American Embassy in Pretoria confirms the newspaper report. It's a welcome vindication for the scientists. Los Alamos staffer Dave Simons observes: "The whole federal laboratory community came to the conclusion that the data indicated a bomb. But ... because the evidence was weak, [the administration] took exception to the information and our analysis." He adds, "It was unsettling because we were quite thoroughly convinced of our interpretation."

The Los Alamos team found wisdom in remaining silent. No great harm came from their not making a fuss.

On the other hand, three Canadian fisheries scientists apparently believe their own silence could damage the public good.

According to the scientific journal Nature, Jeffrey Hutchings of Dalhousie University, Carl Walters of the University of British Columbia, and Richard Haedrich of the Memorial University of Newfoundland are complaining publicly about censorship. They claim that government reports ignore information that contradicts the official line that overfishing is not the main reason key fish stocks are collapsing. Nature reports that the scientists also complain about administrators telling some scientists not to discuss sensitive matters publicly "irrespective of the scientific basis ... of the scientists' concerns." Government officials deny censorship.

The merits of the Canadian dispute are not at issue here. What is relevant is a key distinction between that dispute and the Los Alamos situation in 1979.

Fisheries policy is a contentious public issue. Many United States fisheries scientists, as well as Canadian experts, are convinced that overfishing threatens Atlantic fish stocks. Many fishermen and some government officials resist that conclusion. They cite uncertainties in the research. The public needs full access to the information provided by the scientists. The Canadian scientists are risking only their own career security in going public. If they feel the public good warrants that risk, let's cheer them on.

The Los Alamos scientists were in a different situation. They were under national security secrecy restrictions to begin with. There was no urgent need for the public to know of their disagreement with the administration.

History has vindicated both the conclusions and the restraint of the Los Alamos team. It remains to be seen what will come of the Canadian scientists acting from their sense of responsibility.

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