Rights in a new Act are worrying for researchers. Anna Fazackerley reports.
Researcher anonymity remains a worrying grey area for universities despite the fact that many have spent years gearing up to next January's Freedom of Information Act deadline.
Lawyers, administrators and advisers working towards complying with the Act in institutions see animal research as their biggest concern. And they generally admit that it will be a matter of feeling their way when the requests start to come in.
One of those employed to deal with this tricky task is Clare Coyne, information rights manager at Bristol University. She said: "From next year I will be responsible for upholding and balancing the rights of everyone involved."
From January 2005, any member of the public will have the right to request information about what a university is doing. If that information could identify individual researchers and possibly expose them to a risk of attack, the university will be placed in a very difficult position.
There will be some exemptions allowing an organisation to refuse a request for information, but many of these will be based on complicated assessments of public interest.
Ms Coyne explained: "Is the public interest in releasing information to the public about research on animals greater than the public interest of a researcher being safe?"
Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society, a pro-animal experimentation campaign group, said there needed to be much more discussion in universities about the implications of the new regulations.
"This is a very big change to the way we deal with information about animal experiments," he stressed. "Universities need to be aware of the right and wrong way of dealing with requests."
Simon Festing, director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities, who has been touring UK universities talking about freedom of information, said that institutions would have to think hard about what records they chose to hang on to. Information may be requested from a number of sources - from a project application to an email - and it may not be advisable to store everything.
Dr Festing said: "The Act is fully retrospective. Perhaps that hasn't fully sunk in in all quarters. People might be holding records that go back a long way. When do you get rid of research records? We don't know for sure."
But universities will not be the only source of information about animal research.
The Home Office, which is responsible for granting every animal research project a licence in the UK, is likely to be the first port of call for many requests concerning animal work, especially requests that are broad in nature.
As yet it is unclear what sort of requests will be made, but experts say that in theory an animal rights campaigner could ask for information on all work involving rabbits in this country, for example.
The Home Office recently set a precedent by releasing three-page overviews of ten animal project licences after receiving a request from an anti-vivisection group. Project licences have previously been kept out of the public domain because of the potential threat from extremists.
Critically, these summaries do not name researchers. But scientists argue that it would not be difficult to uncover their identities by entering key words into an online search facility.
Nancy Rothwell, Medical Research Council research professor at Manchester University, pointed out that this risk would be particularly acute for people working in specialist areas involving only a very small number of researchers worldwide. "Scientists are definitely concerned about the implications," she said.
Freedom of information officers predict that there could well be test cases in the coming years, as universities thrash out exactly what information they can legally withhold in the name of employee protection.
In the meantime, all universities should be setting up a central administrative structure, Dr Festing said, so that all requests go to the same point of contact.
He explained that everyone in the university would need to be educated about the Act. Technically, anyone could be asked for information and they need to know who to go to.
Dr Festing is working to set up a network of freedom of information officers with an interest in animal research to share advice about how a university should best respond to each type of request.
One thing, however, is certain: in less than four months, all universities will need to be ready to respond.
Barry Keverne, chair of the Royal Society committee on animals in research, said: "It's a law and people have to obey the law. If I were given the choice, I'd say let's keep everything as it is, but I don't think we'll be given that choice."
The Home Office recently released details of ten UK animal project licences. These three-page summaries, which have been seen by The Times Higher , include the following information:
- A description of the applicant's qualifications. Neither the applicant nor his or her institution is named
- Other staff involved in the research are also mentioned, but, like the applicant, they are not named
- The primary purpose of the research being conducted
- Comments on whether the research is peer reviewed and funded
- A description of the specific objectives of the project
- The scope and limitations of alternatives
- The number and type of animals to be used
- A description of the procedures, but no outline of possible adverse effects.