Friday, 2 September 2011

The University of Stirling is losing the fight against scientific openness

I read this story with disbelief. How can we have gotten into the situation where an established British University is fighting against a tobacco multinational on issues of scientific openness and freedom of information and Philip Morris is in the right? If you review the Information Commissioner's decision notice you will see that the facts are:
  • The university undertook public health research at its Centre for Tobacco Control Research
  • Philip Morris used Freedom of Information legislation to seek underlying data about the sampling and data collection (in other words, the data needed to conduct a scientific assessment of the research in question), but did so through its solicitors
  • The university refused to provide all the data requested
  • Philip Morris complained to the Commissioner that it had not received the data requested, but the Commissioner refused to act on the basis of a technicality (because the original request was made anonymously via a solicitor)
  • So Philip Morris asked again, in their own name
  • The university wilfully misinterpreted Philip Morris' second request, and responded with a spurious request for additional clarification (which was, itself, out of time). When the requested clarification was received, they declared Philip Morris' request to be vexatious (i.e. manifestly unreasonable or disproportionate) and refused to provide data. International tobacco companies are not, I would think, being manifestly unreasonable in showing an interest in research about tobacco.
  • So Philip Morris has complained to the Commissioner again, and this time the Commissioner has found in their favour.
In submissions to the Commissioner about the case, the university claimed that it would cost them £2,908.75 to collate the data requested. The Commissioner is careful not to comment on this directly, but simply quotes Philip Morris:

if a disproportionate amount of time were required in order to produce the response to their request, this would suggest that the survey had not been carried out in an orderly manner, or that the material used to prepare the Report had not been methodically collected and analysed.
 And as I am not a Scottish government official, I can say openly that I heartily agree. How can any scientific institution seek to prevent access to taxpayer-funded data on technicalities, and then again on entirely spurious legal grounds, and then finally with a straight face claim that they cannot provide their data at a reasonable cost? This amounts to excusing your mendacity on the grounds of your incompetence.

The University of Stirling, and the Centre for Tobacco Control Research in particular, should be ashamed of themselves.

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