What Kinds of Scrutiny of Scientists are Legitimate?

February 24, 2015
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

This morning, Rep. Raul Grijalva sent letters to seven universities seeking documents related to academics who have testified before Congress on climate change. The requests come in the wake of revelations over the weekend that the Smithsonian Institution agreed not to disclose payments from the Southern Company, a major utility, to fund and review the work of Smithsonian aerospace engineer Willie Soon. As all of the researchers in question have been critical of mainstream climate science, some are wondering if Rep. Grijalva’s requests can be considered a witch hunt. So is it?

After news broke that the Smithsonian Institution agreed to hide financial ties between one of its researchers and a utility company, Rep. Raul Grijalva sent letters seeking funding information and draft testimony from seven university researchers. Funding information should be disclosed; draft testimony should not. Photo: Alex Proimos via Flickr

After news broke that the Smithsonian Institution agreed to hide financial ties between one of its researchers and a utility company, Rep. Raul Grijalva sent letters seeking funding information and draft testimony from seven university researchers. Funding information should be disclosed; draft testimony should not. Photo: Alex Proimos via Flickr

Parts of the requests are appropriate, and parts are not. Each letter asks for information about funding received by the university in connection with the academic’s work, and whether there are any strings attached to that funding. This is entirely appropriate, as funding and the agreements that come with it can create conflicts of interest and be the source of undue influence on the research itself. The universities and researchers that are named in the letters should comply with requests for this information.

Each letter also asks for draft testimony, presumably to see if funders influenced it. Just as I have supported universities’ efforts to protect communications among academics that constitute the research process, so, too, I see justification in protecting drafts of congressional testimony. Universities would be justified in resisting this aspect of the request. A better approach is to evaluate funding agreements and related communications, which can elicit valuable information. For example, Dr. Soon’s report back to the Southern Company included testimony as a “deliverable.”

Notably, the requests from Rep. Grijalva are considerably less invasive than a request made in 2005 by Rep. Joe Barton for materials from Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. Rep. Barton’s request sought not only funding information but also data, computer code, research methods, information related to his participation in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (including report reviewers), and detailed justifications of several of his scientific calculations. The Barton requests were roundly condemned by scientists, and were part of a long history of harassment of Dr. Mann and his colleagues.

How this relates to Open Records Laws

Requests from members of Congress using their congressional authority are similar to requests from individuals using state and federal open records laws—laws that have been used to harass and intimidate scientists although meant to serve the public interest by exposing inappropriate influence on both science and how science is used in decision making. Earlier in February, UCS released a report detailing how special interests and activists across the political spectrum have misused open records laws. Also this month, at least twelve public university scientists who work on genetic engineering received overly broad requests for email correspondence and other research materials.

So what is the appropriate level of disclosure? Where do you draw the line?

Open records laws are designed to support the public interest, and exemptions to those laws should do the same. Cartoon copyright UCS/Morgan Swofford

Open records laws are designed to support the public interest, and exemptions to those laws should do the same. Cartoon copyright UCS/Morgan Swofford

Open records laws are designed to support the public interest, and exemptions to those laws should do the same. In the case of research communications, the public interest lies in the ability of scientists to ask difficult questions and pursue new lines of inquiry. In the case of financial records, the public interest lies in the ability of those outside the university to see if funds were misspent or financial conflicts of interest were kept secret.

More narrow requests that attempt to ferret out special-interest influence on public institutions are legitimate (as in Kansas, where activists are seeking information about financial support of a professor by the Koch Foundation, or with regard to the Smithsonian case, where funding agreements were first obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act by Greenpeace). On the other hand, intrusive requests for documents that were part of the research process are not.

We can expect academics whose work is related to contentious issues to continue to receive enormous amounts of scrutiny. It increasingly clear that academic societies and the National Academies need to establish recommendations for disclosure standards that balance the public’s interest in transparency and the public’s interest in the ability of academics to do their best work.