by Judith Curry
Some interesting issues this week regarding Freedom of Information (FOI), related to Michael Mann and the UVa and also some statements by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society.
Michael Mann and the UVa
Steve McIntyre reports the following regarding the FOIA requests from ATI regarding Michael Mann’s emails at the University of Virginia:
A consent order was entered into today in respect to FOI requests to the University of Virginia under Virginia FOI legislation from the American Tradition Institute. The order in case CL-11-3236 dated May 24, 2011 stated:
it is therefore ADJUDGED ORDERED and DECREED as follows: The Respondent [UVA] shall complete its supply of requested documents no later than 90 days after the date of this order and will supply them in electronic form.
As I understand the order, information claimed to be Exempt Information will be filed under seal and, after examination of the Exempt Information, the Parties have an opportunity for in camera review.
The statement from ATI can be found here:
“This case is about whether the government can put up a pay wall to frustrate the public’s right to transparency. If it can, the public can’t hold government employees to the high standards of conduct they should meet.”
Sir Paul Nurse and Bob Ward
A recent article in the Guardian is entitled “Freedom of information laws are used to harass scientists, says Noel laureate” with the subtitle “Sir Paul Nurse says climate scientists are being targeted by campaigns of requests designed to slow down their research.”
This article is pursuant to the announcement of a major study by the Royal Study entitled “Science as a Public Enterprise.” Some excerpts:
Scientists’fundamental concern is that the basic observational data on which scientific knowledge is built should be available to be validated or called in question: the interpretations derived from data should be rigorously tested and data should be available to others to check, to review and to use in building theories or in evaluating science-based policies. The ways that data are generated, manipulated, stored, accessed, used and shared also attract public interest and concern. At the same time, exponential growth in the volume and diversity of data is creating technical challenges to making them available. Issues of quality control, appropriate retention policies, and the utility of storage of vast arrays of ‘raw’ data require urgent attention.
A presumption in favour of data sharing should enable efficient research. A case for open access to research data is most obvious where the research has been done at public expense, or where the research has involved experimentation on human beings who have consented to be subjected to risks for the benefit of the public (as in the case of medical research). But it is also arguably necessary where private companies undertake activities that pose risks to public health. Public interest in openness and disclosure must however be balanced against possible concerns of security, confidentiality, privacy and intellectual property protection. Different scientific disciplines generate and use data in very different ways, for technical, economic and cultural reasons.
Hard to complain about any of that. Now back to what Nurse says in the Guardian article:
Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse told the Guardian that some climate scientists were being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research. He said the behaviour was turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate some scientists.
Nurse said that, in principle, scientific information should be made available as widely as possible as a matter of course, a practice common in biological research where gene sequences are routinely published in public databases. But he said freedom of information had “opened a Pandora’s box. It’s released something that we hadn’t imagined … there have been cases of it being misused in the climate change debate to intimidate scientists.
“I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating.”
It was possible some requests were designed simply to stop scientists working rather than as a legitimate attempt to get research data, said Nurse. “It is essential that scientists are as open and transparent as possible and, where they are not, they should be held to account. But at times this appears to be being used as a tool to stop scientists doing their work. That’s going to turn us into glue. We are just not going to be able to operate efficiently.”
Nurse said the government should examine the issue, and think about tweaking freedom of information legislation to recognise potential misuse. Otherwise, he predicted, FoI aggression could be in future used by campaigners to cripple scientific research in many other controversial areas of science, such as genetically modified crops. “I don’t actually know the answer but I think we have a problem here. We need better guidelines about when the use of freedom of information is useful.”
Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics said the intention of many of those making freedom of information requests was to trawl through scientists’ work with the intention of trying to find problems and errors. “It’s also quite true that these people do not care about the fact that it is causing a serious inconvenience,” he said. “It is being used in an aggressive and organised way. When freedom of information legislation was first contemplated, it was not being considered that universities would be landed with this additional burden.”
“The current fog of ambiguity concerning, for example, drafts of research papers produced in other countries is deeply damaging to our scientific standing,” said Tom Ward, pro vice-chancellor at UEA. “Part of the discussion should be informed by what we can learn from Scottish and US law, which explicitly recognise the need to extend some protection to research in progress.”
Nurse said that scientists were not blameless. At the University of East Anglia, they were too defensive in their responses to freedom of information requests over climate change, but their experience was one among many that highlighted a need for better training for scientists in the most appropriate way to respond to information requests.
He added that the best way for scientists to respond was with more openness. “Scientists are going to have to get used to the idea that transparency means being transparent to your critics as well as your allies. You cannot pick and choose to whom you are transparent,” he said. “Increasingly it is going to be an issue for anyone working in contentious areas. Part of retaining the public’s confidence and trust is transparency and openness, and scientists should accept that that is part of the price of having the people’s trust.”
I certainly applaud the new Royal Society project. The FOI issue does raise some thorny points, and it seems like UK law would be improved if it was more like US FOIA law in several respects, including exclusion of research in progress. So I have some sympathy for a few of the points raised by Nurse.
Scientists should be able to communicate freely with each other. But if you are a government employee, your written and online records (including emails) are fair game for FOI requests. So if you are a government employee, just get over it, and make sure you don’t put things in writing or send emails that you might subsequently regret. Get a gmail account, use google groups, or talk on the phone.
Nurse uses the word “useful” in context of the FOI requests; usefulness is in they eye of the person requesting, and second guessing motives of the requestor can get you in a lot of hot water (e.g. CRU).
With regards to the issue of of FOI requests being made to slow down research progress. I seriously doubt that is anyone’s motivation who is making these requests; it seems like they want to see the information, and they have a legal right to do so. So how much does an FOI request slow down research? I only have one personal anecdote in this regard. In 2003, a disgruntled employee requested emails concerning personnel decisions. I turned this request (which was communicated to me by the legal office) over to my admin asst, who went through my emails to identify the relevant ones and remove ones that were legally excluded. It probably took her two days to do this. I had a tiny bit of anxiety about the whole thing, I couldn’t remember everything that I might have written, but felt reasonably confident that whatever I might have written showed decent judgment. So this might have taken up about 4 hours of my time, plus two days of some minor anxiety, I lost much less research time than if I had a moderate case of the flu.
FOI requests related to research are far less likely if your data is made publicly available with the appropriate metadata, with codes made available upon request. This victim card that some climate researchers have been playing with regards to FOI requests is rather a joke, IMO. Trying to fight this will get you into hot water. Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt apparently each have lawyers dealing with these issues; if they are worried about taking time away from research, I think stonewalling and fighting is far more costly in time than just meeting the FOI requests. They are presumably fighting for some principle or academic freedom, but if you are a govt employee this is a fight that won’t be won.
IMO, Ward’s money quote is this one:
“Scientists are going to have to get used to the idea that transparency means being transparent to your critics as well as your allies. You cannot pick and choose to whom you are transparent,”