Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE May 1998

Why We Need Open Discourse and Data Access

Two disparate events in recent months -- the possibility of an asteroid colliding with Earth and apparent evidence of a Russian nuclear test -- illustrate the value of open communication and the need for the broadest possible access to scientific data. In each case, preliminary data filled the air, with politicians and the media jumping to conclusions. But in both cases, scientists were able to resolve the issues through open discourse and publicly available data.

Asteroid Impact!
On March 11, Washington's daily scandal mill gave way to news that a mile-wide asteroid would pass between Earth and the moon in 2028, and that an actual impact could not be ruled out. Astronomers who had been tracking the asteroid (designated 1997 XF11) since December felt that they had constrained its orbit well enough to communicate the results to other astronomers by issuing a statement from the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. The statement was further disseminated by the American Astronomical Society over the Internet, where the media got wind of it.

They say that in Hollywood there is no such thing as bad publicity. Surely the producers of this summer's hoped-for blockbuster movie Armageddon could not have been more pleased to have their plot line displayed as front-page headlines. Politicians also heard opportunity knocking, especially proponents of space-based missile defense systems (known as the "Star Wars" program). House Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) immediately put out a press release chastising President Clinton for his recent line-item veto of a missile defense project -- now clearly, in Rohrabacher's view, a short-sighted decision.

This round-the-clock media frenzy caught the astronomers by surprise -- after all, the statement indicated a .001 probability of a collision -- but the original aim of getting additional data from the rest of their community was successful. Other astronomers dug through archives, and researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory identified XF11 on photographs taken at the Palomar observatory in 1990. With the longer tracking period, revised calculations indicated that the asteroid would miss Earth by 600,000 miles, a distance 20 times greater than originally predicted.

In the wake of the second announcement, one newspaper printed a quote by Mark Twain: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." Certainly Mr. Clemens' quote could run as a caption beneath the full-color artists' conceptions of asteroids hitting Earth that accompanied some newspaper stories. But I consider it more fascinating that the XF11 crisis came and went so quickly as a result of open data-sharing within the astronomical community.

Fingerprinting a Russian Bomb Test
Somewhat closer to home, the State Department summoned Russia's ambassador last August to formally complain that the United States had evidence of an apparent nuclear test conducted only days earlier at Russia's Novaya Zemlya test site, located on an island in the Arctic Ocean. Such a test would violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), signed by both Russia and the United States in September 1996, as well as Russia's own self-imposed moratorium. This diplomatic crisis resulted from a highly classified alert issued by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A seismograph, part of the network being put in place to monitor the CTBT, had detected a seismic event in the vicinity of Novaya Zemlya at roughly the same time that satellite photographs showed apparent testing activity at the site. Although the Russians admitted to conducting tests on weapons components, they adamantly denied conducting a nuclear test and argued that the seismic signal was from an offshore earthquake.

Officially, this stalemate continued until November, when the United States dropped its claim in the wake of a classified Air Force report and the findings of a panel of experts convened by the CIA. In the intervening months, Congress and the press had focused substantial attention on groups opposed to the test ban, who pointed to the Novaya Zemlya incident as proof that the CTBT could not be verified and, therefore, should not be ratified (the Senate has yet to act on the treaty). But long before the United States reversed its position, seismologists had clear evidence that the event had been produced by an earthquake, not a bomb.

When news of this incident leaked in late August, university seismologists quickly recognized the event as a magnitude 3.3 sea-floor earthquake, using nonclassified data accessible over the Internet from nearby seismic stations in Finland, Norway, and Russia. Because these stations were not part of their monitoring network, the CIA analysis did not include their data, despite the fact that all the stations used similar equipment. In a Los Angeles Times editorial in September, seismologist Jeffrey Park of Yale University wrote that this incident "demonstrates the importance of maintaining a global network of open seismic observatories so that future suspect seismic events can be characterized as rapidly as this one has been, without revealing classified data sources."

This single incident may not prove that the CTBT is verifiable, but it certainly suggests that verification will work best when all available data are used. As new seismic stations are put in place to support CTBT verification, the United States and other nations should configure them such that as much data as possible is made as widely accessible as possible. Doing so will not only shed light on suspect seismic events but will also maximize advances in earthquake mitigation and fundamental research into the nature of earthquakes and Earth itself.

Open Inquiry and Accessible Data
In both of these cases, open communication among scientists, combined with publicly accessible data, were the keys to resolving the issues. The astronomers' ability to compare results and incorporate many sources of data quickly produced a revised estimate of asteroid XF11's orbit, indicating that -- for now at least -- the only Earth- asteroid collisions will be the ones coming to a theater near you. In the nuclear test case, the use of all available data could have averted a tense diplomatic crisis, demonstrating the value of open data sharing for monitoring the test ban treaty.

The asteroid example also illustrates that we are in an information age where open communication within the scientific community can quickly turn into a broader discourse with the public, moderated by the media. Anticipating that dialogue and learning to cope with it provides both an opportunity and a challenge that we as scientists must address.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program

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