How to Balance Transparency with Academic Freedom?

By Keith Kloor
Feb 27, 2015 9:54 PMNov 19, 2019 9:43 PM


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A succession of stories in recent weeks involving scientists and open records requests have anguished many who cherish two ideals: academic freedom and transparency. I imagine that journalists have also been grappling with a tension between those two ideals. (I know I have.) More on that in a minute. First a recap. Two weeks ago, I reported in Science magazine that an anti-GMO group had filed a flurry of freedom of information requests, "asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms." Several days after that story appeared, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report detailing how open records requests "are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work." The timing of the UCS report was coincidental and had been prepared well before my story was published. Nonetheless, biotech researchers, particularly those requested to turn over their emails to an anti-GMO group, felt that the UCS report had reflected their plight. And Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, seemed to agree:

These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.

So was this a case where the principles of transparency were being (mis)used in a way that threatened academic freedom? Before you answer, consider: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Wei-Hock Soon (informally known as Willie), a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had received industry funding explicitly for published work and congressional testimony that was critical of mainstream climate science. (Soon has long been a popular figure in climate skeptic circles.) The environmental group Greenpeace used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents that revealed the extent and terms of Soon's corporate funding. As the Times reports:

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

After the Times story appeared, Aaron Huertas, communications officer for UCS, wrote a blog post headlined, "Willie Soon's Failure to Disclose Industry Funding for Contrarian Climate Research is Another Reason to Support Transparency." Someone else had the same sentiment.

Why FOIA scientists? See this great NYTimes piece on corporate cash for a climate researcher. — Gary Ruskin (@garyruskin) February 22, 2015

Ruskin is executive director of U.S. Right to Know, the anti-GMO group that recently sent freedom of information requests to four universities that employ agricultural researchers working in biotechnology. Ruskin suspects there is an unholy nexus between companies like Monsanto and some academic scientists. Thus his interest in any email correspondence between academic scientists and industry. Might such communication reveal unethical relationships similar to that just disclosed between climate contrarian Willie Soon and the energy industry? I've talked with many of the agricultural researchers targeted by Ruskin and they say that they have nothing to hide. One of them, Kevin Folta, a biologist at the University of Florida, Gainsville, has spoken out forcefully against what he believes is

nothing more than a hunt for words to smear a few visible public teachers and researchers that engage public dialog in animal and plant biotechnology. The effects are larger, scientists feel a violation of privacy, intimidation, and are less likely to reach out to lay audiences, which is what we should be doing most.

Does it matter if Ruskin's actions spring from an ideological bias (anti-GMO), as Folta and his colleagues contend? Do intentions even matter? After all, Greenpeace is hardly a neutral bystander. Is anyone in the media or climate science questioning its FOIA motivations? Or does it matter only what the environmental group uncovered with its document request? If you want to drill down into the vexing issues surrounding this debate, I highly recommend as a starting point Anna Clark's recent Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) piece. Here's the thrust of it:

While open records requests are designed to protect press freedom, they also make it possible for people who oppose certain scientific viewpoints to exploit them. Ideologically driven record requests to public universities, coming from both the right and left, are often purposefully designed to disrupt research. This is nothing more than bullying, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates for a measured approach to open records, with a more discrete definition of which requests serve the public good and which do not. But as CJR has previously detailed, it isn’t easy to parse harassing requests from legitimate ones—not without trampling on hard-won transparency laws, at least. Yes, some people abuse their right to open records, but the benefits are still a net positive for freedom of information. That means we need to look at how we can support scientists who are unduly subject to harassing requests while still protecting the right of journalists and others to make them.

The tension between those two objectives is now on display. As a journalist who has relied on FOIA to report several stories, I am biased in favor of those transparency laws. But I am also sympathetic to scientists who feel unfairly singled out because of their work or their efforts to communicate the science underlying their field of research. You can see the Union of Concerned Scientists striving ever so delicately to find the right balance between transparency and academic freedom. A few days after the Willie Soon story broke, a Democratic Congressman sent letters to seven universities, "demanding information about—and 'communication regarding'—specific professors' funding sources and their preparation of testimony before Congress and other bodies," as Ben Geman reports in National Journal. Michael Halpern, author of the UCS report on academic researchers being "harassed" by freedom of information requests, writes on the recent developments:

To be sure, scientists should be able to receive industry funding and to collaborate and test ideas with other scientists, and that includes scientists from industry. But it cannot be ignored that inappropriate industry influence on universities is growing both in scope and method of delivery.

In her CJRpiece, Clarke discusses the UCS report and asks Halpern to "expand on where to draw the line between press rights and privacy rights":

He said that there should be open records exemptions that “support what is truly in the public interest.” Research communications—basically, emails among scientists as they banter and play devil’s advocate—are part of the deliberative process, and essential for “the ability of scientists to ask difficult questions and produce new knowledge.” The privacy of that is in the public interest, and so it should be exempt, he said. But, as his report emphasizes, information on funding is fair game because there is a public interest in “the ability of those outside the university to see if funds were misspent or financial conflicts of interest were kept secret.” “When creating and implementing exemptions, we should steer clear from looking at the motivation of those making requests,” he said in an email. “That’s a slippery slope that gives institutions too much power to avoid responding adequately to ‘inconvenient’ requests.”

Clarke might have been tempted to end her article on that note. I'm glad she continued on:

But it is just that problem—looking into the motivation of requesters—that is so hard to avoid. The UCS report suggests as much, detailing instance after instance where ideological and commercial interests led to intrusive requests that chill the scientific process. The reader is meant to be appalled at how pervasive this is—and indeed, it is appalling. But the report never details exactly how you can tell a harassing request from a legitimate one without looking at motivations. It seems to come down to the old line about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And that’s just not enough to build a policy on.

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