“Climategate” hit the news again last month with the publication of the Select Committee Report, but beneath the climate-sceptics and the angry headlines lurks another problem: what does FOI mean for universities?
Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner, summed up the position under the FOIA when he spoke at the latest inquiry into the scandal. He said: “[t]he fact that FOIA requests relate to complex scientific data does not detract from the proposition [that FOI improves accountability and good governance] or excuse non-compliance”. FOI legislation includes exceptions for information that is intended for future publication, as well as where commercial interests may be harmed, but it is not yet clear what these exceptions cover in academia. Lack of clarity is a problem in itself, but it is not alone.
First, there are the administrative burdens and costs in the wake of sizable cuts in the education sector. Websites such as academicfoi.com are becoming involved in investigating universities and their employment practices as well as those interested in the work of academic staff. With academic institutions becoming the target of FOI in themselves as well as for their research, their workload could well increase. This scrutiny may increase standards, but it has other effects.
On average, universities have less than the equivalent of one full time member of staff dealing with ‘FOI issues’, with universities struggling to respond within time limits.
If universities are to maintain records to the standard required to fulfil requests, then this will require either more staff, or for current staff to shift their attention. The choice between increased costs or decreased services will not be easy in the current climate.
Second, while research councils are encouraging academics to share data, the idea is less than welcome among many researchers. Professor Mike Baillie, in particular, has been scathing about the idea that his data is up for grabs for the ‘price of a stamp’: “[w]e are the ones who trudged miles over bogs and fields carrying chain saws. We prepared the samples and- using quite a lot of expertise and judgment- we measured the ring patterns”. Is it right that FOI can make this hard work of researchers public property? What is the effect on copyright and how will it apply to private funding?
On the other hand, while life may be harder for academics facing FOI requests, it also creates new opportunities. Researchers at the University of Manchester have used FOI to find that Muslim terrorists are no more likely to come from areas with large Muslim populations than anywhere else, while the New Scientist scrutinised the preparedness of the MOD for nuclear accidents.
Right now there are more questions than answers, but what is clear is that clarity is needed. The higher education sphere is both a user of and subject to FOI, and it needs to work out what this means and adapt. It is with this in mind that the Research Information Network, in association with several other organisations, is running a series of workshops next month to examine the implications of FOI for the higher education research community. The Constitution Unit will be contributing to these events, and the hope is that this is the first step in working out what FOI means for the academic sphere.
 Joint Information Systems Committee infoNet, GuildHE and Universities UK. 2009. Information Legislation and Management Survey 2009 (http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/foi-survey/2009/im-survey.pdf)