Leader: Embrace the burden of truth

Scientists must learn that it is right for those outside the academy to be able to challenge their results through the FoI Act

November 25, 2010

It has shone a light into the dark recesses of the public realm, heralding a new era of transparency. In higher education, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has provided insights into the pressures on academic standards, the prevalence of violence by students against staff, the stewardship of public funds, the pitfalls of corporate gifts and more.

Without the FoI Act, for example, we would know a lot less than we do about how London Metropolitan University wrongly claimed £36.5 million in teaching funds. We would also have missed the odd moment of Schadenfreude, such as the revelation that before one notorious examination-standards case became public, a lecturer had told managers: "If word ever got out about what we have done, it could have serious consequences for the academic reputation of the school." Quite.

For academics, the Act has also opened up rich new sources of data in the interests of evidence-based policy and democracy itself.

The academy is in the truth business, so surely no one would argue that FoI has been anything other than a force for good in the sector. Well, some have, and the legislation has caused a few headaches.

For a start, it has imposed an additional bureaucratic burden and been abused by those with a commercial or political axe to grind. Jon Baldwin, registrar at the University of Warwick, has complained that speculative FoI newspaper trawls have become so bad that he expects the next request to be: "List the three things you would least like us to publish."

But a series of provisions in the Act guard against vexatious or commercially sensitive requests, and impose limits on the volume of material to be provided to keep costs from spiralling out of control.

More serious is the case against FoI in terms of university research, outlined in our cover story this week by Cardiff University's Adam Corner and Imperial College London's Alice Bell. They point out that in exposing raw data without the sophisticated expert knowledge needed to interpret them, the Act can pervert the public interest by promoting misunderstanding or even allowing deliberate sabotage.

The scientific process is messy and fits badly with legislation primarily designed to lift the lid on government decision-making. It is true that the Act was not properly prepared for science and that science was not properly prepared for the Act, so it is natural that some academics have been reluctant to engage. More guidance from the Information Commissioner on what constitutes vexatious or politically motivated requests in the scientific arena is needed.

But the law stands, and in an era of engaged "citizen scientists", specialist bloggers, heightened media interest and unprecedented pressure on funding, scientists cannot afford to give even the slightest hint of defensiveness or arrogance. The worst thing that could happen, as Corner and Bell warn, is that public engagement with science is "reduced to an exchange of mutually distrustful correspondence".

Researchers need to start with the basic assumption that it is right for others, including those outside the academy, to be able to test and challenge their methods and results. But they also need to take responsibility for providing the context that makes their raw material intelligible.

In short, they need to learn not only to live with FoI, but also to embrace it.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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