Do astronomers have the right to keep their findings secret?

Astronomers operating the Kepler spacecraft have painstakingly assembled a list of possible Earth-like planets. Do they have the right to keep them secret a few months longer?

The Kepler mission is a NASA program designed to find other possible Earth-like planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. The team involved have painstakingly scoured a patch of space for the tiniest signs of small planets (sometimes called Goldilocks planets--not too close, and not too far from a star), and were due to release their findings yesterday, June 15th--but, reports the New York Times, have not.

The Kepler team came to an agreement with NASA to delay the complete release of their findings by six months, due to launch delays and other various problems that left the team with less time to analyze their findings than expected. Given the project's high risk of false positives, the team wants a little more time to whittle down their work before giving the world access to it. The team is releasing a list of 350 possible planets, but keeping their best 400 secret for a few months for further analysis.

That decision has sparked a bit of controversy in the astronomy community. Some have no problem with it; many of the Kepler team's astronomers have "dedicated their careers to the project," and, says astronomer B. Scott Gaudi, "Who am I to say this? I didn't put 10 years of my life into this."

But the movement towards total technological transparency has its proponents, and they have serious issues with the Kepler team keeping their findings, at least in part, secret. Said Phillip Sharp, a biologist at M.I.T.:

The time has past when a bunch of elite true-meaning experts could go into the next room and make conclusions. They have to be transparent. That’s a change in the culture.

They're both valid points: Surely the team that did all the work (and make no mistake, this was tedious and difficult work) deserves to have some time alone with their findings. But it's also true that this is a NASA project, and surely a governmental agency has a responsibility towards transparency whenever possible. What do you all think?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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