Science and FOI

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?).

3 thoughts on “Science and FOI

  1. andyrussell

    Enjoyed the article – will have to hunt out the hard copy at work!

    Not sure I understood Martin Robbins’ point that “research” is somehow different to all other academic tasks. Surely everything we do is, in the end, publicly funded and part of our job regardless of whether it is linked to a specific grant. (Although, could you request anonymous paper reviews under FoI?)

    As for the UEA CRU situation, I think Skeptical Science do a relatively good job in their post published today. Neither side comes out well but the focus is somewhat skewed.

    Anyway, my only experience of FoI was a journalist wanting to know the cost to the University of Manchester of some research I did for Manchester Science Festival on weekly rainfall patterns. (The work was spun as “Tuesday is the wettest day of the week” so I assume he wanted to do a “UoM wastes £10000 on rainfall junk” story.) Fortunately, I’d done the work over a weekend so I estimated the cost to the uni as 82p as I used some software for a few hours that the uni pays the licence for. It took me about 30mins to write a reply to the guy and two other members of staff were involved in preparing and sending out the reply for about 30mins overall.

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  3. David Colquhoun

    I’ve used FOIA a lot, mainly to try to find out exactly what’s taught on some of the dafter courses. Universities have almost always resisted the requests (and here). It took three years and an Information Tribunal to get information from the University of Central Lancashire. They spent over £80,000 of taxpayers’ money in legal fees alone to try to stop me getting the information. They failed in the end, but it took time and effort.

    I’ve only had FOAI used once on me. That was for emails, I think, connected with the herbalists who threatened UCL because I had said that their use of the term “blood cleanser” was gobbledygook. I just gave them all the emails.

    I’m in favour of making as much raw data as possible available. Our analysis programs have always been available (free) on the web, and we are starting to put source code on the web too. If anyone asks they can have anything they want, without having to resort to FOIA. Digitised records from single channel recordings are big (up to 100 Mb per recording) but we are rapidly reaching the stage where it’s feasible to put them on the web too. In any case anyone can have them, just by asking.

    Climate change, of all the areas I’ve ventured into, is the one where you have to be flameproof. When I wrote in the Guardian that UEA had made a mistake in giving the appearence of obstructing FOIA requests, both sides seem to think I was on the other’s side. Nevertheless i think that it’s becoming accepted that all data should be made available without having to resort to FOIA. It might be quite time-consuming to do this retrospectively, but once it is the norm, it shouldn’t take too long.


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