On Monday, July 17, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) filed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief asking the Arizona Court of Appeals to protect scientists from intrusive open record requests.
CSLDF filed the brief in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), American Meteorological Society (AMS), National Academy of Science (NAS), Pfizer, Inc., and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
In the case, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), which has a history of misusing state open records laws, is demanding the release of 13 years’ worth of email communications, and prepublication analyses and drafts belonging to University of Arizona climate scientists Malcolm Hughes and Jonathan Overpeck.
E&E Legal claims the release of these materials will further transparency in science; the reality is that the disclosure of scientists’ communications and preliminary analyses and drafts do not further transparency in any meaningful way. Hughes and Overpeck engage in true scientific transparency through the sharing of their study results, methodologies, and datasets. The evaluation and replication of their findings is the basis of scientific progress, not fishing through years of emails.
The signatories on the amicus brief share a common goal: preventing the release of scientific data and information that can be taken out of context and used to attack researchers. They represent a diverse coalition of scientific societies, advocacy groups, and industry researchers who have joined together to protect the integrity of the scientific endeavor.
Making Arizona researchers’ communications, including preliminary drafts and peer critiques, public not only harms researchers and scientific progress, it also affects those who wish to collaborate with those researchers. Indiscriminate release of researchers’ traditionally confidential files may dissuade private entities such as Pfizer, which frequently collaborates with Arizona public universities, from investing in future research partnerships with these institutions.
Overreaching open records requests are commonly used by E&E Legal — and other ideologically, financially, and politically motivated individuals and organizations — to silence and discredit climate researchers. Making scientists’ personal documents public damages science in many ways. These include:
- Stifling collaboration and discouraging the frank, creative exchange of ideas, including “devil’s advocate” arguments and “what if” debates
- Providing opportunities for hostile actors to take phrases, including scientific jargon, out of context in order to mislead and confuse the public
- Preventing scientists from fully capitalizing on their research, including obtaining patents, which require that the information in the patent not yet be public
- Dissuading scientists from working in controversial fields like climate science
- Diverting time, energy, and resources away from science by virtue of the need to comply with the time-intensive demands of legal review and litigation
In this particular case, Hughes and Overpeck spent ten weeks and six weeks, respectively, reviewing emails in response to the lawsuit. As a result of the time needed to review and respond to E&E Legal’s demands, Overpeck was unable to use time that he had reserved for sabbatical. Hughes wasn’t able to complete an analysis of results from a NASA-funded project; he was also unable to prepare a grant request that would facilitate a study on the relationship between climate and the sustained drought in California.
CSLDF has helped other climate scientists fight E&E Legal’s invasive open requests over the past several years. The group’s demands are part of a growing trend focused on harassing scientists whose findings or fields of study threaten the financial interests or ideological beliefs of individuals and organizations. As a result, CSLDF is increasing the legal education services it provides scientists and expanding its legal network to help climate scientists defend against harassment.
Learn more about common tactics used to harass researchers and, if you’re a scientist, how to protect yourself from these attacks. You can also read the brief online, and learn more about the filing in this AAAS story about the case.