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Policy

Rhode Island shields academic researchers’ records

Law aims to protect scientific work from disruptions by activists

by Cheryl Hogue
July 14, 2017

A new Rhode Island law is designed to protect draft reports and working papers of researchers at the state’s university and colleges from public disclosure.

The law, enacted late last month, modifies the state’s public records statute that governs public access to information from government entities. Rhode Island may be the first state that has revised its public records law specifically to head off attacks on academics at state institutions of higher education, says Michael Halpern, deputy director of science and democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, a Democrat, says she sponsored the legislation at the request of faculty at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. These academics are concerned that those who deny that human activity is causing global climate change are filing public records requests about research on this subject in hopes of disrupting this work, McEntee says.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a free market group that opposes efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, in 2011 began using public records laws in attempts to gain access to climate researchers’ e-mails and records, starting in Virginia. Currently, the University of Arizona is embroiled with the group over what the American Association of University Professors calls “intrusive public records requests” for academics’ e-mails related to climate science research.

Climate scientists at state universities aren’t the only targets of public record requests, UCS’s Halpern says.

“All kinds of researchers have been harassed by those who dislike their research results,” he tells C&EN. “We have seen numerous examples where activists on the left and right have attempted to use these laws to undermine the work of academics with whom they disagree.”

McEntree says Rhode Island’s higher education institutions “are not only concerned with the amount of time that would be taken away from research by responding to records requests, but more importantly, they are concerned with protecting the intellectual property of the research being conducted as well as the privacy of the researchers and subjects.”

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Comments
Douglas Flor (July 17, 2017 2:00 PM)
Independent of where one stands on the issue of Global Climate Change, I think this legislation should fail. I have seen first hand how researchers, when they obtain results from data analyses that do not fit with their political agenda, bury the findings. This "sin of omission" was best seen at the University of Georgia where I once worked as the Project Manager of several grants funded by NIH.

In one of the grants, a Principle Investigator requested analyses. I provided them and additional findings demonstrating that abuse perpetrated by wives on their husbands was as prevalent as husbands abusing their wives. (There was also a third group wherein the abuse was mutual.) The researcher buried the other two sets of analyses because it did not fit with their political agenda for which they wanted the analyses.

As a scientist in the social Sciences with more than 20 publications in top peer reviewed APA journals, I find the "hiding" of results from federally funded research for political reasons wrong. I am required by the APA to share my output from data analyses at the behest of anyone who challenges my findings. And rightfully so. This discourages fraud and deception.

Hence, I end this comment with my hope that this law fails.

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