Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Head of Royal Society Says Freedom of Information Laws are Being Used to Harass Scientists

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the prestigious Royal Society in London, says that freedom of information (FOI) laws are being misused in organized attempts to harass climate scientists.  While emphasizing that FOI laws are important tools needed to ensure transparency, Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner for Medicine in 2001, argues that anti-climate science lobbying groups have orchestrated an organized campaign of requesting "data and other research materials" for the primary purposes of intimidating climate scientists and slowing down both research and legitimate communication of the science.

According to The Guardian online, another scientist, Bob Ward of Grantham Research Institute, complained that FOI requestors weren't interested in the science but rather the requests were "being used in an aggressive and organized way" to look for problems and errors.  And according to Chris Mooney in relation to another FOI fishing expedition involving Michael Mann in the US, the climate science deniers will twist whatever they receive into whatever they need it to be to confirm their predetermined belief.  Just as they did for the infamous climategate emails, which despite six separate investigations exonerating all the scientists involved, yet the climate denial industry continues to treat as a condemnation of the science (which it wasn't).

The UK FOI requests have been overly burdensome on researchers, as requests have included "among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions."  Again, the intent isn't to understand better the science or the research. According to Nurse, the net result is that which the organized campaigns intended - intimidation and time taken away from doing research.

Scientists, of course, need to be more open and transparent, but then they, like all of us, produce many emails a day on things that aren't particularly interesting or controversial.  To have to organize them for FOI release even though they have no meaning limits their ability to do research.  To have to spend even more time correcting the often intentional misinterpretation (or disinterpretation) of their words by climate change deniers is a burden no professional should have to bear. 

FOI is important for transparency, and the Royal Society and others are looking for ways to bring the process up to speed with modern technology.  But unfortunately there are many who are abusing FOI, not to improve transparency, but to harass climate scientists and disinform the public.  The harassment has to stop.

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