Friday, February 11, 2005

Forbidden Knowledge, with Irony

Science just published a qualitative research article about scientists' "self-censorship." The term we have used before for this behavior is "suppression of research." A news summary is here, and the article is here but requires a subscription. (The citation is Kempner J, Perlis CS, Merz JF. Forbidden knowledge. Science 2005; 307: 854.)
Many of those interviewed for the study were from the life sciences, although none were apparently physicians. The article's introduction mentioned "social control of scientists," particularly regarding studies of "human cloning and embryonic stem cell creation," and certain "government sponsored research." It cited examples of the latter included studies of gay men and prostitutes and of sexual behavior more broadly, and about potential bio-terror agents. The sorts of topics the scientists considered "sensitive" included "human cloning, embryonic stem cells, weapons, race, intelligence, sexual behaviors, and addictions, as well as concerns about using humans and animals in research."
It's an interesting article that adds to our knowledge about suppresion of research.
However, I was startled to find almost no discussion of suppression of research about commercial products due to pressure from those with financial interests in the products. Clearly, this is a prevalent problem in health care, complicated, in some famous cases, by the quickness with which universities and teaching hospitals have succumbed to such pressure.
It is also ironic that most of the examples seemed to be of pressure from groups that may have had a right-wing tinge, e.g., pressure against stem-cell research, or studies of sexual behavior. Of course, as quick perusal of the FIRE web-site shows, at universities much of the pressure on free speech and academic freedom comes from the other end of the political spectrum.
Perhaps the authors' emphasis mainly reflected their small, and probably not very generalizable study sample.
But it seems even more ironic that a report from university researchers on suppression of research seems to leave out some of the most salient sources of pressure on academics to suppress. But maybe this just adds to their own argument.

1 comment:

Joanna Kempner said...

We did find evidence for both of these forms of constraint (censorship based for political reasons and commercial constraints on science.) These examples were cut from the Science article, but will be discussed in subsequent articles.