I apparently missed this little episode in June, when a creationist (with no scientific credentials) read a news piece on the recent work of Michigan State biologist Richard Lenski, and then wrote an obnoxious letter demanding Lenski's data. Lenski has had a long-running bacterial evolution project, and recently published a paper on the evolution of citrate-metabolizing bacteria in his lab. Lenksi has long been the focus of creationist attacks, because much of his in-the-lab evolutionary experiments strike right at the heart of the claims of the intelligent design movement. This latest issue has been well-covered in various science blogs, but this little scene raises an interesting question: are scientists obligated to share data or reagents with anyone who asks, scientist or not? The creationist, Andrew Schlafly, didn't bother to read Lenski's technical paper, which contained the relevant data and technical protocols, which scientists make typically available when their research is published. Instead, Schlafly started out with a rude letter:
Submission guidelines for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science state that "(viii) Materials and Data Availability. To allow others to replicate and build on work published in PNAS, authors must make materials, data, and associated protocols available to readers. Authors must disclose upon submission of the manuscript any restrictions on the availability of materials or information." Also, your work was apparently funded by taxpayers, providing further reason for making the data publicly available. Please post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it, and note where in the data you find justification for your conclusions. I will post your reply, or lack of reply, on www.conservapedia.com . Thank you.
A request for data is one thing: Lenski patiently pointed out that the data and methods were in the paper (and obviously not in the news piece that Schlafly had read), and asked Schlafly to go read the paper, just like everyone else who was interested in Lenski's work. But then another creationist suggested that Lenski was obligated to share his bacterial strains with Intelligent Design "Scientists":
Thus, Prof. Lenski et al. should supply Conservapedia, as stewards, with samples of the preserved E. coli colonies so that the data can be accessible to unbiased researchers outside of the hegemony of the Darwinian academia, even if it won’t be put to immediate examination by Mr. Schlafly. This is simply about keeping tax-payer-funded scientists honest.
It's tax-payer funded research, so does any tax-payer have the right to the research materials? Well, do tax-payers have the right to test out the Fermilab particle accelerator for themselves? Lenski's reply was right on the money:
Before I could send anyone any bacterial strains, in order to comply with good scientific practices I would require evidence of the requesting scientist’s credentials including: (i) affiliation with an appropriate unit in some university or research center with appropriate facilities for storing (-80ºC freezer), handling (incubators, etc.), and disposing of bacteria (autoclave); and (ii) some evidence, such as peer-reviewed publications, that indicate that the receiving scientist knows how to work with bacteria, so that I and my university can be sure we are sending biological materials to someone that knows how to handle them. By the way, our strains are not derived from one of the pathogenic varieties of E. coli that are a frequent cause of food-borne illnesses. However, even non-pathogenic strains may cause problems for those who are immune-compromised or otherwise more vulnerable to infection. Also, my university requires that a Material Transfer Agreement be executed before we can ship any strains.
It's nice that there are some creationists out there who appear to want to be more than armchair amateur critics, but you don't become a scientists just by purchasing a freezer and some pyrex flasks, and then requesting someone else's carefully constructed scientific reagents. If creationists are interested in actually doing some lab science, they should start by building up some demonstrated lab expertise before they go around pestering real scientists for their materials.