Real Scrutiny of Science and Scientists Goes Well Beyond FOIA

March 20, 2016 | 1:19 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

In today’s Boston Globe, reporter David Abel profiles our work to push back on those who harass scientists through open records laws. The Globe article helps prove the point that the Freedom of Information Act is inadequate to root out corruption within science while also protecting scientists from harassment.

Sunlight laws are essential for holding governments accountable--but we also need better, more uniform disclosure standards to protect both scientists and democracy. Photo: James_wheeler via Flickr/creative commons

Sunlight laws are essential for holding governments accountable–but we also need better, more uniform disclosure standards to protect both scientists and democracy. Photo: James_wheeler via Flickr/creative commons

This will always be. Journalists argue that FOIA has been a valuable tool for reporters to expose undue influence from powerful industries on academics. Scientists argue that FOIA has been misused by these same well-funded industries (as well as others with an axe to grind) to harass scientists and unfairly cast doubt on research that threatens either their bottom line (or their worldview).

They’re both right.

As I have written repeatedly, there are many legitimate types of scrutiny over science and scientists (and thus, I take issue with the article’s original headline online asserting that UCS wishes to “shield scientists from public scrutiny” – see UPDATE below). For example, scientists should make public data and methodology related to published papers so that other researchers can attempt to replicate the work. They should make public anything that creates an actual or perceived conflict of interest—research funding, for example, or contributors to a scientist’s public testimony.

But it is wishful thinking to believe that scientific discourse will not suffer if each peer review comment or academic exchange is in the public eye. Therefore, we criticize FOIA requests that are obvious fishing expeditions and commend those that are narrowly tailored, while bringing attention to the toll that the abuse of FOIA can have on individual researchers. It all comes down to what is in the public interest.

While some state FOIA laws could be reformed to strike a better balance between transparency and privacy, the fact remains that we can come up with better tools to hold scientists, academics institutions, and the private sector accountable. These laws, despite being an essential tool for democracy, have their limits.

They mostly apply only to public institutions, allowing those at public schools to be harassed while those at private institutions escape scrutiny. They are expensive and time-consuming to implement. Exemptions that do exist are often too widely applied. And it is extremely difficult to get the whole story without knowing what you don’t know to ask for.

Those who champion full access to scientists’ archives point to recent investigations where journalists used FOIA to uncover important information. For example, WBEZ’s Monica Eng recently reported on a University of Illinois genetic engineering researcher who failed to disclose a $57,000 grant from Monsanto. Her piece also highlighted the troubling trend of university foundations laundering money from those who wish to keep their donations—and strings that are attached to those donations—private.

The Globe article cites the case of Willie Soon, a Harvard-Smithsonian researcher whose papers were approved provided before publication to the fossil fuel company that funded his work for “comment and input.” Further, the Smithsonian agreed to “not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify” the name of the funder without its written consent (see UPDATE #2 below).

In both of these cases, this information was revealed through FOIA requests (and UCS supports the use of FOIA to learn more about funding and funding agreements). Yet required, proactive disclosure would have brought this information into public view in advance of any requests.

We can, and should, expect academics whose work is related to contentious issues to be subject to significant scrutiny. And it’s increasingly clear that we need better, more uniform, enforceable disclosure standards. Then we can move beyond the FOIA debate to more effectively balance the public’s interest in transparency and the public’s interest in the ability of academics to do their best work.

UPDATE, March 21 at 3:30 p.m.: The online article headline was changed this afternoon to the headline that was in print. It now reads, “How public must science be? Union of Concerned Scientists would limit disclosure.”

UPDATE, March 23 at 5:45 p.m.: This post originally stated that the fossil fuel company (Southern Company) had approval power over Soon’s research. This language was imprecise. Instead, it was provided with an “advance written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input.” The Smithsonian clarified to me in an email to me that such language would not be included in future grant agreements. I also left out the fact that the Smithsonian needed to ask for permission to disclose the funder’s name. This was also in the grant agreement. The institution has since reviewed its policies and made commitments to more transparency.