How to Balance Transparency with Academic Freedom?

By Keith Kloor | February 27, 2015 10:54 am

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.

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 CJR piece, 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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  • Tom Scharf

    “He said that there should be open records exemptions that “support what is truly in the public interest.””

    In other words FOI for Soon is “in the public interest”, FOI on Curry and Pielke is “in the public interest”, and FOI on Folta is “not in the public interest”. BS of the highest order.

    It is morbidly entertaining watching organizations twist themselves into a pretzel to justify their contradictory tribal positions.

    That’s a loophole you can drive a truck through. This is EXACTLY what FOI laws were designed to prevent, the denial of requests based on the intent of the requester. If you really have something to hide, then the chances of invoking this exemption is 100%.

    Bottom line is the US taxpayer deserves and should have the explicit right to have transparency into what their money is being spent on. There are areas where exemptions should exist, national security for example. “In the public interest” is way too malleable to not be abused. Who gets to judge this? I would suggest the left and right would have some very different answers here.

    If you have strong feelings on this, go work in the private sector, be careful what you write in e-mails, or do not choose to be a public advocate. The fact that you may believe you are on the side of angels is not good enough to exempt you from taxpayer’s FOI requests. Sorry. Everyone believes God is on their side.

    • Eric

      I think you are reading more between the lines than Halpern intended. He seems to be drawing a line between requests for email correspondence and requests for other documents. I think that distinction is worth considering for cases such as described above where what appears to be in the public interest is understanding the sources and consequences of corporate money.

      If a public sector scientist receives a grant or contract from a corporation, there will be proposals, statements of work, signed contracts, grant instruments, progress reports, final technical reports, financial disclosures, and expense reports. All of these are presumably subject to FOIA requests which should not be too onerous for institutions to respond to (if they are any good at record-keeping). Vague requests for email correspondence are much more onerous because responding to them properly requires carefully scrutinizing perhaps thousands of messages to be sure that personal information about unrelated parties are redacted.

      I would be interested to know if there are any cases where some information was gleaned from a FOIA request for a scientist’s email correspondence that would be broadly interpreted as “in the public interest”.

      I presume that some might think of Phil Jones’ email reference to “Mike [Mann’s] trick to hide the decline in global temperature”. This was a case where the emails were leaked illegally (although perhaps previously archived as part of a response to a British FOI request). And the consequence was some casual language among colleagues that was interpreted wildly differently by different groups depending on their ideological slant.

      • Tom Scharf

        More pointedly it was Jone’s subversion of the FOI process and request to Mann to delete e-mails after FOI requests were made that were by far the most damaging IMO. I guess you would need to do a FOI on all e-mails relating to FOI, ha ha.

        It was e-mail FOI requests that just brought down Oregon’s governor due to his wife’s shady lobbying for green interests and undisclosed conflict of interests. This is one fishing expedition that paid off in the public’s interest. So it is this holier than thou attitude from greens that I find particularly galling.

        What I want is very clear and unbiased rules that are easy to apply and interpret for all sides. We have all had it with selective outrage. Everyone is for removing unnecessary harassing claims, but designing this filter as to remove sources of judgment and bias is next to impossible. There are already limits on burdensome requests.

        I draw very little distinction between a corporation and an environmental NGO. They both typically have an agenda that doesn’t always align with scientific reality. Funding from these NGO’s is every bit as suspect to me as if funding came from Exxon or the Koch brothers. It should be open season on both sources of funding.

        • Eric

          So I suppose the distinction here would be the difference between suspecting an illegal conspiracy and merely suspecting the inappropriate influence of a biased stakeholder on research. If one were suspecting an illegal conspiracy (such as in the case of the Oregon governor) one would need to fish for damaging private communications because the conspiracy would presumably not be disclosed in official documents. However, if it is the later then there would have to be a transfer of money to a public institution. Once that happened it would be properly documented but perhaps not disclosed unless someone asked.

          I certainly agree with you that the rules should be equally applied regardless of the ideology of the parties. I would only slightly amend your statement to say that it should be open season on the INFLUENCE of all sources of funding. Doing so emphasizing scrutinizing the results. As a fully grant-supported environmental scientist I would gladly receive money from either the Koch brothers or Greenpeace, as long as I was free to report the results regardless of how they turned out.

          • Tom Scharf

            Influence is a bit difficult to assess. It’s easier to jump to the guilt by association fallacy, an easy shortcut to not analyzing the work. Saves time. Pressure to please a funding agency is real though I think.

            A question is even in the complete absence of prima facie evidence for wrongdoing, should the public sector still have to respond to FOI requests?

            I would say yes simply because I don’t want the public sector making judgments on the reason for an FOI. The only effective way to remove this potential bias is simply to disallow the practice. It has negative side effects, one way to prevent this is to make the requester pay a reasonable fee for the process.

            I think the real fear is that quotes will be taken out of context or embarrassing comments will be exploited for political points. This is a legitimate problem but I would not be prepared to change the sunshine laws because of this.

          • JH

            “the conspiracy would presumably not be disclosed in official documents. ”

            Thank you!

            That’s exactly the problem with FOI. The only time FOIA really works is the first time it’s applied to a particular group or situation, when no one is expecting it. Once people are aware that they’re subject to it, the relevant info goes underground forcing info seekers to go ever deeper into private matters to be effective. Then it becomes a judicial issue – just like it was before FOIA. At that point FOIA becomes just another layer of ineffective bureaucracy.

            That’s why FOIA should be curtailed. Clear and decisive limits need to be drawn to prevent these fishing expeditions by people of all political persuasions.

    • Joshua

      Tom –

      .==> “Bottom line is the US taxpayer deserves and should have the explicit right to have transparency into what their money is being spent on.”

      So, so you think that Judith and RPjr. should just hand over the goods? Particularly, since money was spent to conduct the hearings at which they testified, and their testimony was used in the ongoing process of policy development?

      • Tom Scharf

        If it was paid for by the taxpayers, yes.

        My main complaint here is the desire by some to setup different rules for different groups, to judge the sanctity of a request and act accordingly.

        • Joshua

          ==> “If it was paid for by the taxpayers, yes.”

          I don’t know what that means given the context provided by my question.

          Obviously, the hearings and the testimony were part of policy-development and required taxpayer dollars.

          Why are you using “if” there?

          ==> “My main complaint here is the desire by some to setup different rules for different groups, to judge the sanctity of a request and act accordingly.”

          Please note that you an extreme minority among “skeptics,” most of whom look at the basic principles through a very selective lens (i.e., are outraged, outraged I say about Judith and RPjr. being asked about their funding).

          It isn’t only “organizations” that are twisting themselves into pretzels here, or only greens that are acting holier than thou in ways that you find so galling. I mean you are galled by “skeptics” when they do it, aren’t you?

          The problem is that most of this is rooted in fallacious reasoning – used to advance a partisan agenda. This is about motive-hunting and guilt-by-association so people can impugn research where they don’t like the results without having to actually deal with the research on its own merits.

          I think that requiring disclosure of conflict of interest makes sense; the problem is how do you “audit” whether people complied with that disclosure requirement (comprehensively) w/o checking, and if you’re checking, then how do you avoid turning the process into motive-hunting and guilty-by-association impugning?

          • Tom Scharf

            Disclosing funding sources for private sector research should not be mandatory. I don’t have a problem with Congress making it a requirement for testifying. I also believe that funding sources should be disclosed voluntarily and not doing so could be considered a factor in evaluating the research (although not to the point of disregarding the evidence presented).

            Misrepresenting others on the funding sources is unethical and should diminish the credibility and character of the researcher.

            I’m not fond of selective outrage. I want everyone held to the same set of rules and want those rules to be clear and as free of judgment as possible.

            Nobody likes having their integrity questioned without cause. It is insulting. But we need a set of rules that are evenly applied to the mafia and the best of scientists.

  • mem_somerville

    This is a really disturbing trend. And what happens when there’s no there there? Do we celebrate the clean researchers somehow? Of course, it gets on the front pages, right?

    And then everyone who disagreed with them gets on board? Is that how it works?

    It’s really twisted. With no good outcome, even for the clean folks.

  • OWilson

    It’s simple, but not to the left wing academics who should know better.

    Any scientific research that is funded by the taxpayer, should be available to any tax payer. An exception can be made for classified security reasons.

    Any scientific research that is used by politicians to effect public policy or the expenditure of taxpayer funds should be made available to said taxpayer.

    Private research does not belong to the public.

    There.

    You’re welcome
    lol

    • Mike Richardson

      So if by any “scientific research that is used by politicians to effect public policy or the expenditure of taxpayer funds,” you are including the research funded by private think tanks and corporations that could affect policy, we might actually have a point of agreement. Of course, there should be limits to requests on research which hasn’t been completed. Otherwise, constant FOI requests would be a pretty obvious attempt to hamper the research.

      • OWilson

        Absolutely!

  • TomL

    Another curious twist is the non-newsworthiness of the Soon affair. Whether with or without merit, the accusations of funding and undue influence on Dr. Soon by Exxon have been around for years. There have been many media stories and thousands of blog words devoted to the topic. It’s not so much a witch hunt as a rehash of a very old controversy.
    So why is it all of a sudden a big deal (again)? Oh, look!! Shiny Thing!

  • JH

    Forgive me for being amused to see the people who have so frequently used FOIA to harass others now casting about desperately to find a way to justify rejecting FOIA requests to GE researchers – even moreso since the harassment comes from their loonie left flank.

    Although the entertainment is enjoyable, the reality is that FOIA laws are far to broad. It’s clear that they can be exploited by special interest groups to advance those groups’ agendas at the public’s expense. And now we’re running the risk of those laws being applied haphazardly, making them even more of a political tool.

  • http://www.vaslaw.com/ Richard Arrett

    I think a distinction needs to be drawn between FOI and the letter the Congressman wrote to Willie Soon’s university (which is not FOI).

    The congressman is trying to obtain disclosure after the fact, and outside the normal process of pre-testimony conflict of interest disclosure.

    The Soon issue has nothing to do with FOI in my opinion.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    “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.”

    There is zero rational basis to believe that industry funding is any more corrupting than government funding.

    Government has vastly more influence with universities than industry and spends orders of magnitude more money on funding research. Yet despite the fact that the government is not a disinterested party when it comes to the outcome of research, no one frets over inappropriate government influence.

  • Ed I

    Not for profits, often the ones making FOI fishing expeditions or prompting the media to do so, are not exactly open and transparent. I know well of a national not for profit organization that received large funding from a large corporation. I left when they often leaned in favor of that corporation and against the corporation’s competitors. That was before emails. I can only imagine what their emails back and forth would have said. As a scientist I worked for an organization where everything was public record and we regularly had to produce ALL correspondence on a given subject. Ironically it did not prevent some people in the organization from hiding their connections and corruption. They just did it face to face or by telephone. Every time we received broad “FOI” request it was someone trying to make a lot of money or they had ill founded motives. Yet today, primarily because of government bureaucratic ineptitude or corruption if one works for government or receives public funding, even just as salary and benefits, the public expects then to be total transparent. I responded immediately to every “FOI” request.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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