Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Jan. 31 on a bill that would shield college professors and researchers from turning over a portion of their research for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data requests.
H5098 pits public transparency privileges against the right to privacy, in particular around the issue of climate-change research and political groups.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, shields pre-publication research, such as draft reports, notes, memos and working papers, from FOIA requests. Preliminary printed documents, recordings and e-mails related to the research at public colleges and universities would be exempt from data requests. Final published reports wouldn't be protected. Private colleges and universities, such as Brown University, are already not required to share such data.
“Many of these requests for records are time consuming and burdensome, and (researchers) would have to stop all of their research and go back and figure what they have to send for a request. It was a real interruption,” Hagan McEntee said.
Aaron Ley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, testified that the data requests are often a political tactic used by fossil-fuel front groups to stymie and undermine research and even embarrass professors working on climate change.
“How long will it be before our own professors become targets of these campaigns?” Ley asked. “Think about all of the climate research that we’ re conducting at the University of Rhode Island. ... They’ve become a great center for climate research.”
Ley referred to a case at the University of Arizona where a climate researcher took 10 weeks to review 100,000 e-mails to comply with a FOIA request. The requests, he said, have a chilling effect on public university research and may erode research efforts between public and private institutions. Knowing they can't be candid, researchers worry their data, comments and hypothesizes will somehow be used against them.
“Private universities are freer and that puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” Ley said.
Climate-change denial groups such as the Energy & Environment Legal Defense Fund have hounded researchers such as Michael Mann, the University of Virginia climatologist who discovered the “hockey stick” global warming data. Mann and his research partners have endured years of court cases over requests for e-mails.
States such as Delaware, Utah, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Maine and South Carolina have offered special protections to public university researchers for scholarly correspondence.
“Works in progress must be shielded from ideological attacks until such time the work is published,” said Jay Walsh, executive director of the URI Chapter of the American Society of University Professors.
No one spoke against the bill during the recent House hearing, but Rep. Justin Price, R-Richmond, asked about the use of public money for research. Price; Rep. Sherry Roberts, R-West Greenwich; and Rep. Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham, voted against the bill.
The bill is expected to pass the House, as it did last year. The legislation wasn't heard in the Senate last year. A new Senate bill has yet to be introduced.