Yes to open debate and transparency in research, but FOI is the wrong tool for the job

The Protection of Freedoms Bill will be debated in the House of Lords again tomorrow. This is our chance to get an exemption for pre-publication research from Freedom of Information requests, in line with the exemptions in Scottish and US legislation. more–>

Open debate and transparency in research are very important, and Universities UK supports moves to increase access to research data through measures like open access repositories. But the Freedom of Information Act is the wrong tool for the job. We don’t think Parliament envisaged how it would apply within universities, and especially to university research, when the Act was passed in 2000. In any case, since that time, the proportion of funding universities get from public sources has fallen considerably, and will continue to fall, making their inclusion within the definition of ‘public authorities’ all the more strange.

Meanwhile, over in the House of Commons, the Justice Committee has just announced its Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the FOI Act. This will offer us another opportunity to raise these concerns, even if we are not successful in pushing for an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill.

All support in our efforts will be gratefully received!

Vivienne Stern

About Vivienne Stern

Head of Political Affairs
This entry was posted in About Higher Education, Government and parliament, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Yes to open debate and transparency in research, but FOI is the wrong tool for the job

  1. Rodney Breen says:

    Can you offer any examples of research information which has been disclosed through FOI or EIR that should not have been? I can’t think of any. The Acts are pretty robust in protecting information which genuinely should not be disclosed.

    • Vivienne Stern Vivienne Stern says:

      There are a number of examples of the kind of thing we are concerned about in the briefing for Peers at
      http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/ParliamentaryActivities/UUKInParliament/Pages/default.aspx

      Let us know what you think.

      • Rodney Breen says:

        I’ve looked at these examples and I’m not convinced: they’re mostly theoretical – what might happen, not what has. Every sector has advanced the same sort of arguments and generally been rebuffed by the two Commissioners unless there is robust evidence – in which case the claims have been upheld.

        Information on individual participants is surely protected by the personal data and confidentiality exemptions. Researchers competing for data to publish first? By definition, future publication. A ‘strong implication’ that the Commissioner would be asked? So what? That’s what he’s there for and he’s very likely to support a good case for the exemptions cited. In fact, the more decisions we have the more confident we can be in making exemption arguments. Having to prove commercial interests and public interest against disclosure? Yes, as with other organisations, there is a need to consider genuine public interest where it exists.”A lot of this data is commercially sensitive and can even have security implications for the people supplying it.” Yes, and there are exemptions for both of those.

        It’s worth remembering that the Scottish research exemption is balanced by a limit on the pre-publication exemption in general – 12 weeks under FOISA as opposed to no set period in FOIA.

        Animal research? I’ve seen this subject come up in Scotland and the research exemption was not the one called upon. As in other parts of the UK, health and safety of researchers, personal data and commercial interests are the exemptions likely to be involved, and properly so. But again, the Commissioner has to balance the genuine public interest in knowing that research does not involve unnecessary suffering to animals.

        Climate change research? Here is the best example of why FOIA and FOISA should not be resisted. Both in the UEA example which later led to ‘Climategate’ and in QUB (tree rings) the academic response to scrutiny was defensive: circle the waggons and hide behind the traditional secrecy. And in each case, the result was lose-lose: the information came out anyway and left the Universities looking like they had something to hide. The reality is that the world has changed and that sort of approach is simply unacceptable. The way to cope with concerns that uniformed or malicious requesters will misuse the information – a concern shared by many other organisations facing FOI requests – is to be proactive, embrace the need for transparency, and take the initiative on promoting public understanding of the issue – something which climate change researchers have generally been poor at.

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  3. Martin Locock says:

    If you argue that universities aren’t really public bodies, then they should be treated like other private bodies, and taxed, regulated and managed accordingly. That seems a high price to pay for the inconvenience of releasing some data.

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