Why it's OK for taxpayers to 'snoop' on scientists

Why it's OK for taxpayers to 'snoop' on scientists
A post-doctoral scholar from the University of Utah looks over data as part ofa study onozone levels being conducted at the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area near the Great Salt Lake in Salt Lake City in June. (Jeffrey D. Allred / Associated Press)

If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you're doing. That's the principle at the core of the federal Freedom of Information Act and of the many similar state freedom of information laws.

Although politicians like Hillary Rodham Clinton get the most attention when congressional inquiries and FOIA requests turn up something unsavory, it's not just civil servants or elected officials who run the risk of embarrassment. A great deal of scientific research is done on the public dime — directly funded through government grants or indirectly via academics working at public institutions — which means some scientists also are subject to transparency laws.


Generally speaking, in the last decade or so, the research community has been moving toward increased transparency, particularly when it comes to any financial entanglements that might cast doubt upon a scientist's objectivity. The backlash, however, has begun, and calls to reverse the trend are coming from some surprising places.

Since the Physician Payments Sunshine Act was signed into law in 2010, a number of medical groups have been trying to water down proposed transparency requirements. Two months ago, the New England Journal of Medicine — a prior leader in the push toward increased transparency — ran a series of articles suggesting that transparency had gone too far. And the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has often spoken out about the corruption of the scientific process, has begun a campaign against the use of FOIA requests to "bully" scientists or to "disrupt or delay" scientific work. It has also called attention to what it sees as intrusive governmental demands for information.

As it stated in a report this year, "Snooping on researchers' emails has become the 21st century equivalent of tapping their phone lines or bugging a lab's water cooler."

But such "snooping" on scientists' inboxes by journalists, watchdogs and government officials has revealed significant problems that would never have come to light via other means.

Through FOIA requests and congressional demands for information, we have learned that fossil fuel interests funded climate scientist Wei-Hock Soon to the tune of roughly $1.2 million, and that his scientific studies were described as "deliverables" to those corporate interests. We discovered that a University of Texas epidemiologist had violated the integrity of a journal's peer-review process by leaking a study to a pharmaceutical firm. And we found out that researchers were allowing the medical device company Medtronic to edit and sometimes write parts of published studies on its bone-growth product InFuse.

As with any tool, freedom of information laws and other mechanisms for compelling transparency can be abused. It's a real pain to be on the receiving end of a request, much less a subpoena. And ideologues have been known to use the FOIA system to hamstring perceived enemies, forcing them to answer so many requests that work becomes impossible.

Several years ago, a climate-change-denialist nonprofit and Virginia's state attorney general targeted Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist then at the University of Virginia. Both parties tried to get Mann's work papers and emails, apparently hoping to find something to cast doubt on his credibility. Only after a multiyear, multi-court legal battle was Mann able to disentangle himself from the mess. In retrospect, it appears to have been an attempt to make this scientist suffer for the sin of doing his job — publishing important studies that are in the public interest.

But such cases of freedom-of-information bullying are rare, especially compared with the number of cases where "snooping" exposed major problems. Trying to rein in FOIA to prevent abuses is akin to imposing voter-ID laws to stop electoral fraud, which will almost certainly result in voter disenfranchisement, a more significant problem. The attempted cure, in other words, could be worse than the perceived illness.

Besides, sometimes the bullies have a point. A few months back, the Union of Concerned Scientists called out a small nonprofit funded by organic food growers for sending FOIA requests to several dozen pro-GMO scientists; it claimed that the requests were inappropriate and implied that they constituted harassment. But these emails revealed that at least one of the scientists, Kevin Folta, had some of his expenses picked up by Monsanto, despite claiming that he had "nothing to do" with the company.

Why should scientists have a privileged position when it comes to freedom of information requests? Taxpayers have the right — the duty — to try to understand what they're doing. Scientists should be subject to the same rules as every other civil servant.

Charles Seife is a journalism professor at New York University and the author of six books, including "Virtual Unreality." Paul Thacker is a journalist and nonprofit consultant in Washington.

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