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Debate highlights conflict between FoIA transparency and scientific confidentiality

The Index On Censorship’s “Is Transparency Bad For Science?” debate was timely arriving in the wake of the second release of emails hacked from the University of East Anglia, writes Sophia Ignatidou.

Imperial College yesterday hosted a panel comprising philosopher Baroness O’Neill, Wellcome Trust’s director Sir Mark Walport, journalist and campaigner George Monbiot, Professor David Colquhoun and chaired by the Guardian’s Jo Glanville. The panellists discussed transparency, public’s right to know, scientists’ responsibilities and Freedom of Information Act’s efficiency and limitations.

Baroness Onora O’Neill commented on transparency’s ambiguous meaning: “Transparency is a form of quasi communication, not necessarily a form of communication. I think what matters for science and what matters for democracy is communication not quasi communication.”

She also appeared wary of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, concerned that once it becomes law it will mandate public authorities to proactively release datasets in a reusable format. “It’s important to allow competent others to check and challenge data,” she said, making it clear there should be a clarification of who is to receive the information. She argued that time of disclosure is another serious matter to be taken into consideration, as datasets should be released when they are “completed and checked”.

Monbiot took an opposing view in the issue of competence. He said: “That actually shouldn’t be what FOI is about. And if you heard a civil servant say that or someone working for the Ministry of Defence or the Treasury say that, you would say this is an outrageous intrusion of our freedom and our right to know.”

Throughout the debate he stressed one should not separate scientists from the rest of the civil servants: “If that’s the rule for one branch of government employees then it should be the same rule elsewhere. You can’t start making exemptions as to what branch of the civil service or government employees should be subject to FOI.”

He said the scientific community was utterly unprepared to deal with the media “onslaught” that followed Climategate but was still much more transparent “than many other sectors”.

The media and the public get suspicious when barriers like paywalls are constructed. He also blamed part of this suspicion to the research councils: “Another problem is the research councils – the heads and the boards of the research councils are absolutely packed with corporate representatives.”

Sir Mark Walport, representing the Wellcome Trust, joined the common request for openness but argued that “transparency has limits”. Raw data can sometimes be useful for the public but if misinterpreted they can have the opposite result. That’s why he called for the implementation of certain rules that decide what information published and how information should be presented.

Professor David Colquhoun was the one to turn the discussion to health issues, referring to the fact that the majority of the results of clinical trials are never published. He said an extension of the Freedom of Information Act is needed, much more so now that more private providers are going to collaborate with the NHS and the universities.

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