I do see both sides of this issue as an information technology professional that supports researchers at our institution. Unfettered university research is important to advance our knowledge of the world around us, making the world a better place to live in and improving life. On the other hand, publicly funded institutions are partially funded by tax payers and transparency is needed so abuse does not occur. On the abuse side of the equation, University of California does have a whistle-blower policy and regular mandatory training on this subject to ensure that faculty and staff adhere to strict guidelines of professional conduct and the use of research funding. There can be bad actors that won’t adhere to this of course and that can’t be avoided 100% of the time, but I think in this Information Age transparency is important with a certain filter and oversight guided by the institution’s policies of accountability. So who watches the watcher? This is a tough question with no easy answer when institutions should be transparent but at the same time be wary in disclosing incomplete data and research that can be taken out of context by persons and organizations with a specific agenda that could skew the narrative and thus burden and/or discourage important research.
In a state that just made it mandatory for police agencies to hand over “use of force” and discipline records, and has an upcoming bill taking effect requiring the disclosure of police video/audio within 60 days – California’s legislators are taking big steps to ensure transparency. Unless of course the transparency calls into question their (legislators) agenda. This particular issue, lead levels in condors, is one where the study influenced legislation. Despite the fact that compliance with the lead ban had no effect on lead levels in condors (in actuality measurable lead levels in condors has increased post ban), and there has been documented cases of condors seen eating paint on old farm houses and barns (presumably containing lead based paint), California proceeded full steam ahead with a state-wide, all manner of hunting, lead ban. Disclosing methodology or observations, communications not published in the study might reveal a narrative that would contradict the messaging put forth by those in one camp on this issue. They can’t have that. Let’s have transparency where it fits the narrative, and not elsewhere. Transparency has its place after all.
I can’t help but imagine the path this is headed down leading to more university based research driving legislation in support of an argument, shielded by these newly amended laws preventing the same level of transparency expected elsewhere.
I appreciate the comment above from the researcher who has been the victim of weaponized public records requests. It’s a shame there is no longer the ethical standards once held in the journalism community. These records requests have created an entire niche for people to obtain information and then craft a narrative that has “click bait” value, normally because it hinges on “secrets unearthed” via the records request process. Finding a middle ground to transparency/preventing slanderous journalism (when everyone with a computer can be a blogger) is a monumental task. Unfortunately, this public records disclosure journey probably began without the foresight to recognize these pitfalls, and now efforts like this bill are being made to fix the problem – but the solution needs to be universal, not tailored to one group or another.
Transparency is important. However, it has been weaponized (at great public expense) to target scientists teaching inconvenient truths. I’m a public researcher that studies how light changes plant biology, with a focus on indoor urban farming. I also study the genes that influence strawberry flavor to aid the university’s traditional breeding (not GMO) strawberry program. I also have studied biotechnology and host a weekly podcast on the topic. I participate in teaching these concepts effectively through articles, blogs and social media. For years activists have wanted me silent.
The guy quoted in the article, Gary Ruskin, used FOIA to obtain tens of thousands of my emails. At first I didn’t care– there’s nothing to hide and everything is above board and transparent.
The problem is that unfettered access to my emails provided Ruskin and others my words to cut/paste/misrepresent in any way they could to maximize damage to my career, my scientific reputation, and eventually stop me from teaching. Ruskin assembled stories based on my words, and distributed them to reporters. In many cases he had to urge them to do the story. Sometimes they did, as in the cited New York Times article by Eric Lipton.
The article said that I traded secret grants from biotech companies for lobbying, and that biotech companies funded my travel to speak to congressional bodies. It basically said that I my research was not trustworthy and that I was doing the company’s work.
The fact is that my university received a $25k donation for a communications program I run– from Monsanto. That’s a good thing, as they didn’t control the content and it allowed me to teach aspects of science communication (something we’re not good at)) to scientists all over the country. It was fully disclosed as per university rules and I thanked them (and other sponsors) at each event. They did not sponsor my research, so I never credited them for that.
But Ruskin, sponsored by the Organic Consumers Association (which is not pro-organic, they are anti-biotech), made up a different story and handed it to reporters like Lipton. I spoke with Lipton and told him exactly what it was, but he went with Ruskin’s story instead and published a hit piece that changed my life forever– upon reading you come away with the feeling that I’m getting top secret grants from companies to lie about science.
When I teach (well, taught– I don’t have a teaching appointment anymore, probably related to this) students google me because I am a great teacher. They see the article that says that I’m basically a corporate mouthpiece. They also see the tremendous fallout from hateful organizations that slammed me, harassed my family and threatened my laboratory after the article was published. Go ahead, google me– use google images too.
I sued the New York Times and it was dismissed because the judge felt it was a reporter’s latitude and a first amendment issue. However, in depositions it was revealed that the reporter knew I never lobbied and never received secret grants. The information is false, but exists forever online.
I lost speaking opportunities around the globe. I still cannot participate in any collaborations that have confidential information or even discussions in closed fora with other scientists online. My colleagues specifically eliminate me from opportunities because of the harassment that begins with public records requests. I suffered horribly from anxiety and depression watching my 30-year public science career disappear.
The NYT story is just one example. Ruskin gave materials to Alison Vuchnich of Global News Canada who wrote a story about me harassing a teenager– when actually it was quite the opposite. Other reporters contacted me and asked about the emails, I explained, and they didn’t write the stories. Some have integrity.
And read Ruskin’s US-RTK website about me. It is horrifying. It is absolute slander and I have no way to correct it.
I’m 3.5 years past this and it has changed my life forever. I keep trying to do more visible acts of good work, I teach when I can, and still participate in the public discussion although at a much different level. So the answer is YES– abuse of public records law to target and harass academics is a problem. We need transparency, but we also need ways to ensure that transparency is not abused to harm others and eliminate them from the classroom and public discourse.
Better,add private universities to be subject public records disclosures. Public funds are spent on private university resarch.
Sounds like it’s sure to pass overwhelmingly in this backwards state. Less questions and less accountability for the government, more laws to burden the people.
Please stop experimenting with animals. We need transparency!
This is an excellent article. Thank you for presenting both sides in an unbiased fashion.
Taxpayers have a right to know what is going on inside places like laboratories, where there is no law preventing animals from being burned, shocked, poisoned, isolated, starved, drowned, addicted to drugs, brain-damaged, and abused in other ways. There needs to be some accountability.
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