Adam Corner and I have a piece It’s on Freedom of Information and science in the Times Higher this week. In fact, we’re the cover story. You can read it online, though the THE’s art work for the piece is a treat, worth the price alone (and the layout in the THE always makes more sense in print). You can also see Phil Batty’s leader on the topic, stressing that the academy is in the truth business so should embrace FoI.
Adam specialises in how the public treat climate science (see his posts for the Guardian) and our focus is climate science. As he pitched the idea to me, when it came to “climategate” it was often said that science was “asleep at the wheel” when FoI came calling, but maybe we could turn that question around and instead ask, was FoI legislation ready for science?
The answer, as ever, seems to be somewhere in the middle. Or at least, if FoI wasn’t ready for science, then we can argue that some fault lies with the scientific institutions, who could have played a more active role in the consultations over FoI in the late 1990s (i.e. they could have helped make the legislation reflect their needs better).
One of our key points is that science is a lot more than just the sort of ‘information’ you might be able to ‘make free’. To quote our piece:
The sort of knowledge that can be easily extracted using FoI requests is far-reaching but also inherently limited to information that is explicit. Numbers, calculations, reference lists – and, of course, emails – can all be placed squarely in the public domain. With enough of this type of explicit information, some aspects of the scientific process can be recreated. If you have someone’s raw data, you know the calculations they made and you can see their results, you are in a position to confirm or challenge their conclusions. But to what extent does this fully capture scientific knowledge?
Though we did also get and interesting comment from Jon Mendel, who argued FoI requests can throw up really interesting context you wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, everyday discussions between those working on a policy which Mendel suggests might provide a more “bottom-up perspective on how decisions are made and policies develop”. I thought that was interesting, though I’m not sure how broadly applicable it is (and I know climate researchers have views on the relevance of their emails…). I’d be interested to know about other peoples experiences of FoI – I have one blogged here.
If you have any other comments on the piece you’d rather discuss here than on the THE site, please feel free to (e.g. do you agree with our our conclusion that public engagement is the way forward? Or agree, but wish to elaborate on how?).