By KENDRA GRAVELLE

PROVIDENCE—Legislation to protect scientists and academic researchers from being required to disclose early research through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data requests has officially been signed into law.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the legislation Tuesday, after the House passed a bill by a 58-6 vote in January and the Senate unanimously passed a companion bill earlier this month. The bill was introduced to the House by Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (South Kingstown, Narragansett) and was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (South Kingstown, New Shoreham).

“This will be a benefit to the whole academic community in Rhode Island,” said Aaron Ley, assistant professor of political science at URI. “The governor has been talking about making this a place for people to be able to do business and research so I think this is aligned with those broader goals.”

Although the wording of Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records law had stated that “preliminary drafts, notes, impressions, memoranda, working papers, and work products” were exempt from public record requests, the amendment clarifies the statute to include “those involving research at state institutions of higher education on commercial, scientific, artistic, technical, or scholarly issues.”

The wording clarification could protect professors and academic researchers should they end up in court, Ley explained.

“It’s typical that judges will air on the side of transparency and allowing people to get the information,” he added. “This sends a signal and ensures that there’s some kind of specific protection for academic research—it clarifies the existing law.”

McEntee added that those things should be protected as intellectual property. She said without protections in place, companies that want research conducted might seek researchers from private institutions.

“They’re not subject to this kind of scrutiny,” she added. “So this is good, especially for URI.”

Early research conducted at private universities had already been protected from FOIA requests.

Ley began to work on the legislation last year, although bills weren’t introduced in the House and Senate until this year. The issue was brought to Ley’s attention following reports in other states of harassment of professors.

“There’s been a lot of groups—some of them are climate denial groups, some of them are groups associated with other industries—and those groups will sometimes abuse open records laws,” Ley said. “They don’t necessarily do it to get the information—they might be doing it to harass them.”

That threat was one reason McEntee decided to sponsor the bill. While moderating a climate change seminar at URI, she said she was disturbed to hear about the issue of professors being harassed.

“In the current political climate, you never know what’s coming next,” added Jay Walsh, executive director of the URI chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Although neither Ley nor Walsh have heard of instances of harassment in Rhode Island, there have been some alarming cases at universities elsewhere.

“This is to get ahead of the curve,” Ley said. “Academic research is something to be valued. It’s something to be protected—it deserves a special amount of protection so that the research process will not be interfered with by others who have an agenda.”

In 2010, University of Virginia climatologist Michael Mann—who has since moved to Pennsylvania State University—went through a lengthy court battle over access to his emails.

Ley and Walsh also each referenced a case at the University of Arizona, where climatology professors Malcolm Hughes and Jonathan Overpeck had been required to sift through 13 years worth of emails—over 100,000 pages—after a court ruled they would have to comply with a FOIA request. The request had been made by Energy and Environment Legal Institute, an organization which has questioned the research behind climate change.

“We wanted to make sure that there was a strong signal sent that research in Rhode Island—especially public research—is going to be protected,” Ley said. “Researchers should feel free to do their research without being concerned and feel safe in interpreting and corresponding with other researchers through that process.”

The legislation is important for several other reasons, as well, Walsh said.

Any findings and conclusions made by academic researchers are tentative until they’re reviewed and verified by other field experts, he explained.

“That peer review process is a very sacred process,” Ley added.

Walsh mentioned concerns over public safety, if members of the public were to get their hands on information that hasn’t yet gone through that peer review process.  

“If I was doing research on something and somebody requested public information through public information requests on my ongoing research, maybe the information I have is incomplete. Maybe there are errors in my methods or the data isn’t accurate,” Walsh explained. “We don’t want to misinform the public until we know that it’s correct and able to be published.”

Walsh added that the amount of time professors could lose having to go through things like emails could be detrimental to their research. For example, in the University of Arizona case referenced earlier, it took Hughes and Overpeck 10 work weeks to sort through their emails.

“They don’t have as much time to put into teaching,” Walsh said, “and certainly they’re not able to do research while they’re doing that.”

While the legislation was overwhelmingly passed in both the House and Senate, McEntee speculates that those who voted against it felt it was an attack on transparency.

“It really isn’t,” she said. “Once a professor’s done with all their work, everything is open—there’s no holding back at that point.”

In fact, Walsh added he thinks the amendment to the Access to Public Records law will benefit all Rhode Islanders.

“The citizens of the state depend on research that’s done here at [URI] and we want to make sure that research is done well by accomplished scholars and it is ready to be produced and published as soon as possible,” he said. “I think it’s an important step for the faculty, the researchers and the citizens of Rhode Island.”

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