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Scientists Harassed By Freedom Of Information Laws

May 26, 2011

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said freedom of information (FOI) laws are being misused to harass scientists and slow down their research, and said those laws need to be re-examined by government officials.

Nurse, a Nobel laureate, told the Guardian that some climate scientists have been targeted by organized campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and causing research delays. He said the behavior is turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate scientists.

His comments follow the launch of a Royal Society study into how scientists’ work can be made more accessible and better used to inform policy in society. The review, expected to be published next year, will examine ways of improving access to science data and research papers and how “digital media offer a powerful means for the public to interrogate, question and re-analyze scientific priorities, evidence and conclusions.”

Nurse said that scientific information should be made available as widely as possible as a matter of course, a common practice among biological research where gene sequences are regularly published in public databases. But 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,” he said.

“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,” he told the Guardian.

“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 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,” he said.

Nurse said the issue needs government examination, and it should think about modifying freedom of information legislation to recognize potential misuse. If left unchecked, freedom of information aggression could be used in the future by campaigners looking to undermine scientific research in many different areas of science. He said he didn’t know what answer is needed but thinks the problem is great. “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 parties making freedom of information requests was to nose through research 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,” Ward told The Guardian’s Alok Jha. “It is being used in an aggressive and organized way. When freedom of information legislation was first contemplated, it was not being considered that universities would be landed with this additional burden.”

Evidence of persisting aggression of the requests began to come about when personal emails and documents were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) servers in November 2009 and leaked onto the Internet. Skeptics said the contents of the emails gave evidence that scientists were scheming to keep errors in their research hidden and prevent rival researchers from publishing their work.

However, the scientists at the UEA’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were cleared of any misconduct. But Muir Russell, a former civil servant who led the investigation, found a “consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness,” although he stressed he had no reason to doubt the CRU team’s integrity.

“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 recognize the need to extend some protection to research in progress.”

Myles Allen, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, said he has been involved in many long-running exchanges with people making FOI requests for his data.

“In the case that went on the longest, I answered all the guy’s questions. I spent half a day writing a long email explaining the answers to all his questions, but it wasn’t really that which he was after: he was after some procedural questions about IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. He wanted some evidence that an IPCC statement had been changed ““ it wasn’t about science at all; it was about procedure,” Allen told The Guardian.

“I can see what someone with a very specific political comment might gain from an unguarded comment, but it’s very hard to see how science or public understanding of science gains from every exchange between scientists being made public. No other discipline operates in that way. The net effect of this, incidentally, is that senior people in government and senior scientists close to government are basically just using the telephone again. Which is very bad for science because email exchanges are an extremely useful record,” he added.

Nurse said scientists were not totally blameless. At UEA, they were too defensive in their responses to FOI requests over climate change, but their experience was among many that underlined a need for better training for scientists in a more appropriate way of handling FOI requests.

Ward agreed that most universities do not have appropriate knowledge of the requirements of FOI law. But he said that researchers should be able to have confidential conversations with their colleagues and researchers at other universities. He noted that it was becoming extremely difficult for researchers to do that by email.

“There’s no other walk of life where every conversation you have ought to be made public,” he said. “There’s a massive double standards because a lot of the people submitting these requests are themselves not transparent at all. They don’t reveal their sources of funding or the details of what they’re doing behind the scenes.”

He said the best way for scientists to respond to the requests is 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.”

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