Friday, May 27, 2011

Campaign for Freedom of Information responds to comments on science and FOI

The Guardian, Friday 27 May 2011
The president of the Royal Society calls for changes to freedom of information laws to prevent them being misused (Data laws 'misused' in climate change row, 26 May). However, existing safeguards address many of his concerns. Deliberate attempts to "intimidate" scientists, if that is what they are, can be refused under the Freedom of Information Act's safeguards against vexatious requests. Unreasonable requests for all pre-publication drafts of scientific papers can be refused under an exemption for information due for future publication. Explanations of why changes to successive drafts were made do not have to be provided unless they exist in writing. Multiple related requests from different people, if they are co-ordinated, can be refused if the combined cost of answering exceeds the act's cost limit.

Another academic is quoted as saying many FoI requests are made in order to find problems and errors – but that is a valid use of the act. It was the misguided attempt to deny ammunition to critics that led to the Climategate fiasco. The resulting independent review found there had been an "ethos of minimal compliance (and at times non-compliance) … with both the letter and the spirit" of the legislation, and that the campaign of requests to the UEA climatic research unit was partly the result of its own "unhelpful" response to earlier requests. It is not clear that much has changed.

Maurice Frankel
Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information

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