European Space Scientists Unwilling To Release High-Quality Images From Publicly-Funded Rosetta Mission

from the it's-good-to-share dept

One of the most exciting scientific explorations currently underway is the Rosetta space probe, which succeeded in placing a lander on the surface of the comet 67P, and which continues to send back some astonishing pictures. But according to an article on the BBC News site, those pictures come from Rosetta's navigation cameras, not from the main science cameras, which produce higher-quality images. Here's why that's happening:

These images are subject to a six-month embargo to allow the mission team to make discoveries without being scooped.
That's strange, since Rosetta comes from the publicly-funded European Space Agency (ESA), so there is obviously a good case for them being released immediately, especially given the high level of interest from many people. But as the BBC article explains, it's not ESA that is holding things back:
The agency procures the satellite platform, the launch rocket and runs day-to-day operations, but the instruments that gather the data are supplied -- and funded -- via national member states.

Esa may drive the truck, but it does not own the merchandise in the back.

Giving scientists on particular instruments a proprietary period has become standard practice.

It provides the researchers with a head start, enabling them to be first to announce major discoveries and to publish the details in the top journals.

The credit and citations that follow boost their ability to propose future programmes and win further funding. This process has become central to the way they work.
Maybe, but the approach is looking increasingly anachronistic. That's partly because of a new kind of real-time public engagement with science thanks to the Internet; but it's also to do with changes in the way raw scientific data is made available. As an example, the BBC report mentions the data policies for the Sentinel Earth-observation satellites that ESA is building and managing for the European Commission:
The first of these spacecraft, a radar platform called Sentinel-1a, became operational late last year.

All of its pictures are being given away free, with no priority access.

The view is that this will supercharge discovery and even create new businesses in Europe that can exploit the data.
Even though the Rosetta team is still clinging to the older model, there's plenty of evidence elsewhere in science that sharing results does indeed speed up discovery -- and boost the economic return. For example, researchers working on the Human Genome Project (HGP) decided as far back as 1996 that all data from publicly-funded projects should be released immediately. According to a 2013 study, the HGP created $966 billion in economic impact and $59 billion in federal tax revenue; not bad for an investment of $14.5 billion by the US government.

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Reader Comments

The First Word

Speaking as an astronomer

Being a member of the astronomy community, the idea that the information would become public instantly is slightly terrifying. Mostly because my funding comes from grants, which often rely on past publications. If my group released the photos, and was working on careful science to explain some phenomena, and some other group scooped us with poor quality science but mostly correct ideas, there goes the discovery paper and quite a bit of my oomf for my next grant cycle. It's all about who publishes first, and I feel not having the proprietary period would cause a manic rush to publish that would end up effecting both the science, and probably the sanity of the scientists involved.

Boosting the economic return by releasing information right away may be a good thing, but in the end you are going to be hurting the scientists who have made this their life work.

Also, linking this to the HGP; astronomy is a very low economic return science, that's part of the problem with funding. We don't often make discoveries that end up making people money. Meaning or main source of income is those grants we have to fight tooth and nail for. The HGP likely has for more economic applications then most astronomy projects do, aside from the money made via PR. It's a very one way science when it comes to costs. While I adore my particular research, I am under no illusions that what I am doing will somehow be able to be economically viable. My research is important for the advancement of my field, but has no economic return. This is of course scary in the US were the government seems to be pushing only for science that boosts the economy.

Still, there ARE projects designed for this instant information release. The LSST, which will hopefully be working sometime in the 2020s, will be pushing all its info out as soon as everything has been reduced. The beauty of that particular project is that there is so much information that no one person could scoop all the important discoveries. They will have terabytes of data released every few days, and there will be thousands of important discoveries to be made. Rosetta is a very different mission, in that there is a much more limited data set, and for funding purposes the scientists who run the mission need those discoveries to be made within the science team to validate the mission.
—Bri

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 11:44am

    The academic necessity to publish or perish is what is driving this. It has become much too significant a requirement for academics, as it is about all that the administrators who control their jobs can measure and asses.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    A Conspiracy Theorist, 22 Jan 2015 @ 12:01pm

    I feel like this could be aimed at guiding the public opinion on what the pictures represent.

    Something along the lines of "a scientist already saw those pillars of rocks, and explained them as the result of erosion" instead of a general, uneducated "OMFG aliens!"

    Maybe the advantages of having a professionnal opinion already laid out when the pictures are released outweight the disadvantages?

    Also, a 6-months head start isn't that long (though I'd agree with someone who thinks it could be shorter).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 22 Jan 2015 @ 12:03pm

    I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, of course I want the full resolution images released right away, not only because it was publicly funded project but also just for the nature and value of the images themselves. But I also think that a short embargo isn't necessarily a bad thing, to give some priority to the scientists who have spent, in some cases, a vast part of their careers making this mission happen.

    Releasing the images earlier may speed up discovery (I have no doubt that it does) but in this case I'm not sure that giving that extra six months to the mission team is entirely unreasonable. Aren't the Hubble images also embargoed for a few months for just the teams who requested the particular observation? Having the data you set out to record set aside for your intended use for a few months before releasing it to the world for everyone else to use seems fair enough to me.

    After all, it could be worse... there could be interest groups lobbying lawmakers to retroactively extend data embargoes to life of the science team plus fifty years or something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 1:06pm

      Re:

      Hehe. Nice one!

      Often data needs to at least pass some quality assurance measures before release and it may be necessary to transform the data to a more accessible and understandable format than what it is initially gathered in. But half a year is more than what is necessary for that purpose.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 4:26am

      Re:

      That. A short embargo should let the team release their articles cautiously and accurately then all the date should be made public.

      We need to stop thinking everything in terms of profit. Science sometimes brings just some fancy new mathematical structure or some useless shit but fast forward a few years or decades and that useless piece of science may be in for incredible advances for humanity as a whole. We should be worshiping scientists as we do with soccer players and other athletes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 22 Jan 2015 @ 12:22pm

    This is normal on American mission too.

    It's not unusual for mission scientists to spend well over decade of their careers - from mission proposal to launch to information return - working on the project.

    While they're properly analyzing the data and properly writing up their findings, some amateur - with no interest in being scientifically rigorous - could scoop them with their own data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 12:23pm

    -officially sent to investigate a mystery signal
    -fails to land properly
    -loses power way too early
    then this.
    Im starting to suspect that the whole "offensive shirt" thing was just to divert the peoples attention from something else

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 12:42pm

      Re:

      First attempt at landing on a comet did no quite as planned, but can be counted as a success, just Like Elon Musk counts hitting the barge a success because it was a first attempt. Experiments only fail if the do not provide useful data, and are successful if they provide useful data, even if the outcome is different from what was desired, predicted or expected.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 1:18pm

      Re:

      Gathering experiences on these types of missions is valuable science no matter how much fails. That media needs to focus on the less than optimal outcomes to keep a coverage story going is another issue. We have hardly seen anything of the core project data yet.

      I will bet you that most of the media covering the live story won't bother with the sciency viency stuff at the core of the mission!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jan 2015 @ 1:57pm

    Sounds to me like these scientists are afraid of not being credited with the discoveries. Which I find silly. If a 3rd party releases images from the mission. They're obviously going to cite where these images came from.


    "The agency procures the satellite platform, the launch rocket and runs day-to-day operations, but the instruments that gather the data are supplied -- and funded -- via national member states."


    Ahh, so that's how it work. Ok, next time the public funds the instruments, and the national member states fund the rocket and that carries the instruments to the destination. Who wants to be the truck driver if you're the one getting stuck paying the fuel bill and don't get to share in the payoff reward?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bri (profile), 22 Jan 2015 @ 2:06pm

    Speaking as an astronomer

    Being a member of the astronomy community, the idea that the information would become public instantly is slightly terrifying. Mostly because my funding comes from grants, which often rely on past publications. If my group released the photos, and was working on careful science to explain some phenomena, and some other group scooped us with poor quality science but mostly correct ideas, there goes the discovery paper and quite a bit of my oomf for my next grant cycle. It's all about who publishes first, and I feel not having the proprietary period would cause a manic rush to publish that would end up effecting both the science, and probably the sanity of the scientists involved.

    Boosting the economic return by releasing information right away may be a good thing, but in the end you are going to be hurting the scientists who have made this their life work.

    Also, linking this to the HGP; astronomy is a very low economic return science, that's part of the problem with funding. We don't often make discoveries that end up making people money. Meaning or main source of income is those grants we have to fight tooth and nail for. The HGP likely has for more economic applications then most astronomy projects do, aside from the money made via PR. It's a very one way science when it comes to costs. While I adore my particular research, I am under no illusions that what I am doing will somehow be able to be economically viable. My research is important for the advancement of my field, but has no economic return. This is of course scary in the US were the government seems to be pushing only for science that boosts the economy.

    Still, there ARE projects designed for this instant information release. The LSST, which will hopefully be working sometime in the 2020s, will be pushing all its info out as soon as everything has been reduced. The beauty of that particular project is that there is so much information that no one person could scoop all the important discoveries. They will have terabytes of data released every few days, and there will be thousands of important discoveries to be made. Rosetta is a very different mission, in that there is a much more limited data set, and for funding purposes the scientists who run the mission need those discoveries to be made within the science team to validate the mission.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    LeeJS (profile), 22 Jan 2015 @ 2:35pm

    This all seems above board. It's not like they're saying we can't ever have it. Load of fuss about nothing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      jupiterkansas (profile), 22 Jan 2015 @ 5:07pm

      Re:

      I have to agree that there are far more egregious things going one to get upset about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      RonKaminsky (profile), 23 Jan 2015 @ 5:39am

      Re:

      I also have to jump on the "disappointed by Techdirt using exaggerated headline" bandwagon.

      OTOH, if the headline had been true, one could only conjecture that the reason was that European privacy laws were to blame, which of course would mean those photos were chock full of ETs. /sarc

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Copyright Monopoly, 22 Jan 2015 @ 8:34pm

    Paid scientists good. Free high-quality images bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 22 Jan 2015 @ 8:47pm

    It's a rigged game.

    Think of the poor little person researcher trying to negotiate this maze. At least, give him/her a few months head start on the high-res stuff after having spent years banging on doors begging for funding to get *anywhere*.

    Or, maye they'll $whistleblower them to you. Whichever.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dismayed, 23 Jan 2015 @ 7:44am

    Six months is not an onerous delay. It is HARD work to conceive, plan, and execute a mission of such complexity. Those who made it happen should be the ones to have first dibs on reaping the plaudits necessary to advance in their field. It's not fair to allow freeloaders to scoop the people who actually did the work. The former will have their shot in six months to find anything of substance that the first string might have missed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jan 2015 @ 1:52pm

    The whole idea that a scientist must "win" cash prizes by being the first to state a fact or show a new facet of reality, is so barbaric as to be almost comical. It makes science into a sport, or a contest, demeaning the entire concept of the most important research humanity undertakes.

    The process of government based funding of scientific investigation allows those in power to cherry pick what gets investigated and control what gets discovered.

    As long as science remains the property of commerce and the military, all truly important discoveries will be hidden and only those things that are obviously economically profitable for commerce, or that promise militarily feasible defense/offense capabilities will ever have even a remote possibility of eventually being realized by the general public, as most derivatives of such discoveries will end up under patents.

    It doesn't matter what part of human civilization one examines. The leaders of society always choose to do everything in the most bass-ackwards manner possible.

    Again, I really doubt that this is a simple coincidence.

    ---

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Jan 2015 @ 10:57pm

    I find it interesting that you describe this as "clinging to the older model" when in reality, full release of data/results after a 6 month embargo is a standard that government funding agencies around the world are still struggling to force scientists to adopt. Many major funders now mandate this practice, but actually assessing and enforcing compliance is a nightmare in its own right.

    The problem, as the first commenter says and our astronomist above alludes to, is the fact that a scientist's worth is measured in publication and citation numbers. Take away a scientist's ability to publish results based on their work without getting scooped, and you do incredible damage to their funding and career prospects.

    The problem underlying THAT is that there's no viable alternative quantitative way to measure a researcher's value. (Various altmetrics are still a loooong way off from being reliable.) And when it comes to hiring or funding, the powers that be (a) do not have the time or resources to properly, qualitatively assess the potential value of every applicant on other merits, and (b) worry about being able to justify their decisions to fund or hire one scientist over another, if asked to down the line.

    And "this person's publications are in journals with a higher average impact factor" is something that sounds like a good quantitative justification... even though it's almost entirely meaningless.

    As an advocate for open access currently working with a major publisher to try to change the status quo, that's the problem I see as underlying most of what's wrong with scientific publishing: the way the system incentivises science.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Captive Audience, 14 Feb 2015 @ 11:13pm

    Public Funding Public Domain

    The fact that the public is being excluded is what is making grants so hard to come by. For example putting men on the moon was dangerous, expensive and did not provide immediate benefits or resolutions for the most pressing issues of the day. The public is entitled to the information. I attribute the lack of stem interest and reseach dollars to the corresponding lack of interest in outreach. Unfortunately the information superhighway is suprisingly bad at distributing information. Science needs to be brought to the people in as many ways possible. It belongs to the public if they pay for it. In the US the paywall erected around research is a travesty.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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