Tag Archives: openness

Book Review: Secrecy and Science

Wanna know a secret? Of course you do. Ok, it’s not really a secret, it’s just a story that’s a bit closed off. It’s an interesting story, about a military research centre which held an open day, but it’s in a niche academic book with a £55 pricetag. It’s a good book, painstakingly researched and thoughtfully written, just not one aimed at a large audience. It’s about secrets, hence this slightly folksy start, and here’s my review.

Science is often seen as both being about uncovering secrets and doing so in open, and yet large parts of it are done in secret: for military or industrial reasons, or more mundanely, everyday professional competition between otherwise apparently open scientists, or the privacies of peer review and other practices of scholarly publishing (e.g. embargos on press releases). As Balmer describes the Manhattan project; at it’s time, an almost unprecedented achievement in organised science, and yet one which was organised on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Key to Balmer’s thesis is that secrecy changes science. Secret science not simply open science enacted behind closed doors. Knowledge is fundmental to the social interaction which helps make so much of science. Secrecy disrupts that. Secrets separate scientists from aspects of their community at large, and with that they not only block off information and ideas but reward systems which enforce scientific norms and/or broader attitudes to morality and behaviour. That, in itself, doesn’t mean secret science is necessarily bad science (even if it might be seen to go against Mertonian norms) but it does make it different.

Balmer is also keen to stress that there are degrees of secrecy; it’s not as simple as if it’s open or a secret. Often the two work together, not least in that story of an open day I promised you. It’s chapter six of the book, on how a mix of political pressure and media coverage led to the secrecy at Porton Down being complemented by a measure of transparency culminating in a series of open days. The very idea of an open day for a research center undertaking secret research might sound quite weird but it was all about how they co-managed both openness and secrecy. As Balmer concludes, this story is not one of a complete secretive organization being forced to open, but a transition from secrecy embedded in culture to one that managed openness and secrecy in public.

By June 1968, with various representatives of the media, peace activism and parliament were, sometimes literary, knocking on the door of Porton Down. The BBC requested to film. Porton Down had to check with the Prime Minister as Number 10 had “preferred in the past not to go out of our way to promote interest” (Balmer, 2012: 93) It wouldn’t be a matter of unfettered access it’d always be controlled and the PR agents asked to preview film so as allow chance to persuade BBC to remove any “unsuitable material”. The CND magazine, Sanity, had published an aerial photograph of the site with the caption “The picture no one dare to print”. In contrast, the director of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment director told the BBC “I would like to introduce a sense of realism about this claim that Porton is a super-secret establishment” (Balmer, 2012: 106) which seems rather pompously patronising to me. Claims to “a sense of realism” are always rhetorically interesting, especially in a context where information is closed off to many (I mean whose realism, and how are doubters to check?). It’s pretty telling that a lot of the fallout of the television covered seemed to led to the familiar pattern of fights over impartiality with claims of bias from both sides.

Balmer writes that plans started to gather pace, and from late June 1968 they were planning open days at the end of October. This was a tight deadline so “emergency measures” (the very idea that it was that tight showed amount of prep required: managed openness) and a committee of scientists was setup to design exhibits and demo, others gathered information about how other defence establishments had managed open days (it wasn’t unprecedented). The open days were invite only, divided into a “dignitaries day” (MPs, senior local officials, industrial representatives , a senior scientists day and another day for other scientists and laymens [sic] (Balmer, 2012: 109-9). Members of the various peace associations and student protesters would not be welcome.

Fascinatingly, they also worried about vivisection. Animal experimentation wasn’t a central topic for public controversy at the time, but it had been an area of ongoing sensitivity, and a trickle of parliamentary questions had been noted. Porton Down had a farm on site, which bread around 600 cats, 10,000 rabbits, 30,000 guinea pigs, 50,000 rats and 10,000 mice a year for research. Should this be one of the things that was hidden? As one of the organiser remarked: “There is little doubt that a visit to Allington farm would give some of the press the time of their lives in reporting on the kittens and puppies it is best to face this once and for all” (Balmer, 2012; 109). A reply from the Minstory of Defence was that the secretary for state “has expressed the hope that it may prove possible to concentrate the public gaze on the rats, mice and guinea pigs kept for experimental purposes. If puppies and kittens are allowed a prominent position in proceedings, and unfavourable public reception to the work of the establishment is guaranteed” (Balmer, 2012:109-110). Whatever your own views on transparency and animal testing, it was interesting to see a different area of science-related managed un-openness folded into those of chemical and biological weapons research.

One of the other really interesting parts of the book is a chapter on the way doubt and uncertainty function in secret science. As Balmer shows, many of the scientists working under secrecy drew on authority to lay claim not just to certainty but uncertainty. As he argues, science studies sometimes too keen to lend a deconstructive hand at expense of studying those scientists who are all too happy to express gaps in their knowledge (Balmer, 2012: 74). This is not just the case for military research, as Balmer refers to several studies of environmental and regulatory scientists where “confessional uncertainty” becomes a positive sometimes defensive, resource (Balmer, 2012: 78-9). Uncertainty, just like certainty, is a contestable ground and a useful political tool on occasion too. We all know uncertainty exists in science policy disputes – YAWN (or as he puts it more politely “that is an over-familiar observation”, Balmer, 2012: 89) – but the ways uncertainty is constructed, managed and utilised by scientists could do with more scholarly attention.

Overall, I liked this book, but there is scope for a more ambitious work on science and secrecy; something that is historically less ambitious, but more sociologically so, and says more about secrecy in science at large. Although Balmer makes a few interesting general points (e.g. the ones I led with, and the points about uncertainty) he is also limited by his case studies. How do military cultures of secrecy differ from, for example, contemporary industrial contexts? Or more everyday competition between scientists, or the more normalised, protective secrecy of peer review? How do these all interact, as with the vivisection issue at the Porton Down open days? What are the different types of secrecies in and around science, and what do they mean for the future of science policy? What about new stuff like the Google-funded research drones for WWF? How can we build a more developed vocabulary for the various types and layers of interacting open and closed spaces of science? I enjoyed Balmer’s book, but for that very reason it inspired a lot more questions too.