The government has just published its long-awaited response to the Commons’ Justice Committee report on the Freedom of Information Act. The response, accepts the argument that we need a new exemption for ongoing research within the Act.
Universities UK has been making this case for over a year. It sometimes seemed like a doomed initiative. There are, quite rightly, strong feelings that the rights of access to information held by public authorities should be protected. For better or worse universities are counted as ‘public authorities’ under the act because of their public role, and the public funding they receive. Universities are already committed to increasing transparency in research. Rapid progress has been made on making research findings publicly available via free-to-access online repositories and moves towards open access publishing.
But the FOI Act was never intended to expose ongoing research to public scrutiny. During our long campaign we explained the harm that can flow from this unanticipated consequence of the act. For example we explained how important it is to ensure that researchers have an opportunity to verify and analyse their own findings, and ensure they are subject to peer review, before they enter the public domain. This is important in areas of highly controversial research, for example relating to climate change, where the release of incomplete or potentially misleading data could have a damaging effect on the necessary public debate. Similarly, in health, we pointed to the risk that incomplete research could affect public behaviour – causing people to make judgements based on incomplete findings.
But we also pointed to the fact that in universities, research is a competitive business. The race to publish first is important to individual research groups and to the UK’s standing internationally. The act does not specifically recognise research as a quasi-commercial interest and current exemptions are clearly inadequate to ensure research staff can be confident that, if they invest a large portion of their career in advancing a particular subject, they will have the opportunity to put their findings in the public domain first.
Finally, we want to encourage the opportunities for universities to work with business. Freedom of Information legislation has to provide some protection for ongoing research if commercial partners are to have the confidence that they can work with universities without such information getting out before they have had the opportunity to protect it by patent or other means.
So this is a good day for research.