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How public must science be? Union of Concerned Scientists would limit disclosures

Michael Halpern, manager of strategy and innovation at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

John Boal for The Boston Globe

Michael Halpern, manager of strategy and innovation at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The group has been a fierce advocate for transparency, regularly championing investigations that rely on public documents to hold government officials accountable.

But over the past year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based advocacy group that represents thousands of scientists around the country, has campaigned to limit the scrutiny of scientists who work for public universities and agencies through public records requests.

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These scientists, the group says, are increasingly being harassed by ideological foes who seek to unearth documents that would derail or sully their work with evidence of bias.

“We don’t want to work in an environment where every keystroke is subject to public records,’’ said Michael Halpern, who oversees strategy at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, founded at MIT in 1969. “We’re trying to protect the deliberative nature of science. . . . Scientists need space to come to new knowledge, and to give critical feedback.”

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But the group’s efforts have sparked tensions with other open-government advocates, who have argued that it risks opening loopholes that could make it easier for officials and agencies to hide information from the public.

“It’s just gibberish to say these laws stifle research,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’s freedom of information committee. “These are government scientists funded by taxpayers, and the public is entitled to see what they’re working on.”

The dispute centers on the proper balance between academic freedom and the transparency of public institutions, and has escalated as a growing number of scientists, typically those who research controversial topics such as climate change, receive public records requests.

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The requests often seek e-mails between scientists in hopes of exposing ideological bias or a political agenda. While open records laws vary from state to state, the controversy primarily affects researchers at public universities or those involved in projects that receive public funding.

Critics say that many of the requests abuse the spirit of open records laws and threaten to stifle research. They also make it harder for public universities to conduct controversial research and attract top faculty, compared with private universities where scientists aren’t generally subject to open records laws, they say.

“Our role is to raise awareness about how scientists are being harassed,” Halpern said.

Halpern wants exceptions made for scientists in public information laws, and has argued for new standards at federal institutions, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, that would shield e-mails with fellow scientists, research notes, primary data, and other correspondence they consider confidential.

In a 2015 report titled “Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers,” the Union of Concerned Scientists cited a host of examples of researchers who said they had been harassed by public records requests.

A climate scientist, Michael Mann, who had taught at the University of Virginia and now teaches at Penn State, described how a conservative group called the American Tradition Institute used Virginia’s open records law to seek all his e-mail correspondence with other scientists.

He resisted, and after a lengthy legal battle, the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected the request in 2014, ruling that Mann’s e-mails were exempt from the state’s public records law.

‘Our role is to raise awareness about how scientists are being harassed.’

Michael Halpern, oversees strategy at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists 
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He described the request as an “attack” and said it reflected how public records requests are being used “in a way that they were never intended to be used.”

“What groups like ATI are looking for is a weak link, some institution that, rather than asserting its rights . . . will simply take the path of least resistance (and expense), and cave,” Mann wrote in an e-mail. “That’s why they continue to probe, filing vexatious open records requests against climate researchers in state after state.”

The report also cited the case of Steve Wing, an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina.

Wing said he was targeted with “extensive and burdensome” public records requests by the North Carolina Pork Council, a trade group, after he released a study in the 1990s linking neighbors’ illnesses to hog farms. The group sought all materials associated with the study, including the names of the study’s participants.

Wing said a university administrator told him he could be subject to criminal prosecution if he failed to comply, and he eventually negotiated a compromise to turn over documents that were redacted to protect the participants’ confidentiality.

But open government advocates note that public records requests have helped expose conflicts of interests involving scientists, such as Wei-Hock Soon, a physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has argued that global warming can be explained by variations in the sun’s energy, rather than increased carbon emissions from pollution.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, environmental groups obtained documents showing that Soon had failed to disclose he had accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry.

Michael Macleod-Ball, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in open records laws, said about two dozen states have some type of exemption to their public records laws for researchers at public universities.

The federal freedom of information law, he said, has no such protections unless the records involve national security, trade secrets, or several other exempt categories.

In Massachusetts, the open records law includes no exemptions for the communications of researchers at public universities. Proposed changes to the records law, slated for debate this year, would not add any.

But state officials, as well as those at public universities, have often cited other exemptions to deny requests or redact records, or only make them available at exorbitant fees. For example, the law allows the University of Massachusetts to exempt “trade secrets or other proprietary information” from public records requests.

The debate has intensified in recent weeks. In a New York Times opinion piece in January, Paul Thacker, a journalist and former congressional investigator, wrote that adding exemptions to public records laws would set a “dangerous precedent.”

“When research is paid for by the public, the public has a right to demand transparency,” he wrote. “Scientists who profess agreement with transparency only when it is on their terms are not for transparency at all.”

Halpern responded on the group’s blog, calling Thacker’s arguments “hollow” and saying they misrepresent the union’s campaign.

“The suggestion that scientists are hypocrites for supporting transparency while opposing absolute disclosure does not hold water,” he wrote.

Halpern said the union supports keeping all correspondence between scientists and government officials open to the public, and acknowledged the challenge in finding the proper line between transparency and confidentiality.

“We have plenty of work to do to increase transparency in science, and rid it of inappropriate influence,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t mean we should scan every handwritten note, record every phone call, or publish every e-mail.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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