AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 2, Fall 1995


History, Archives, and Credibility

In an article on "lessons learned from the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project," the Project's director, John Till, commented on how to obtain public credibility for such projects--in this case an effort to reconstruct the exposure of Northwesterners to radioactive materials from the Manhattan Project plant at Hanford, Washington. The first step was a search through historical records, and here the value of thorough archiving and historical work became clear.

"Although many records have been destroyed," Till writes, "we have found that sufficient information generally exists in historical documents to recreate with considerable confidence past operations... At Hanford, we performed a directed search--looking for specific types of records without looking through every box--on about 50,000 boxes of records. At the Savannah River Site, on the other hand, more than 40,000 boxes of records were examined systematically. Every box was opened and its contents catalogued.... Directed searches are easier and less expensive than systematic searches, and they are scientifically defensible. Nevertheless, they may be done at the cost of credibility with the public because one can never be sure important records have not been overlooked."

Equally important, Till found, was complete access to documents. "Declassification of classified records that are needed for research is imperative.... Our initial approach was to have a few scientists...decide which data should be made public. The approach was ultimately unacceptable, however... declassification of historical records was crucial not only for our credibility but also for the successful technical peer review of our work."

John E. Till, "Building Credibility in Public Studies," American Scientist 83 (Sept.-Oct. 1995), pp. 468- 473.

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