A non-profit organization, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), has submitted freedom of information requests to four universities to secure correspondence between at least 14 academic researchers, agricultural companies (including Monsanto, DuPont and Dow), trade groups, and public relations firms about their work on GMOs. Some have termed it a “mammoth” request. Researchers are debating how to respond, and at least one university has declined to provide the requested information.
Anna Clark has written an incredibly intelligent and thought-provoking piece exploring “the shadow side of sunlight laws” for Columbia Journalism Review. Clark notes:
“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”
A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists – Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers (2015) – advocates for a balanced approach to open records, and a clearer definition on which requests serve the public good, and which do not. The Union affirms the importance of transparency and accountability to democracy. The Freedom to Bully report details the ways in which open records laws are sometimes used to disrupt or delay the work of researchers. (If you link to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, there is also a link to a report detailing the harassment via public record requests of climate scientist Michael Mann).
From the report:
Academic institutions and other involved parties need to be prepared to respond to these requests in a way that protects the privacy and academic freedom of researchers while complying with the law and respecting the public’s right to information.