The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state open records law equivalents — designed to promote transparency in government — are increasingly misused by groups seeking to harass publicly funded scientists and inhibit progress in critical areas of research such as climate, biomedicine, and epidemiology.
Legal protections for scientific research materials vary widely in the United States, according to a report by the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, leaving scientists and universities vulnerable to malicious open records requests and endangering the scientific endeavor.
“Research Protections in State Open Records Laws: An Analysis and Ranking,” is the first in-depth analysis of the existing protections for scientific records, and their applications, in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report explains each state’s treatment of scientific records and assigns the state a letter grade from A to F accordingly.
Just three states earned an A: Delaware, Maine, and Pennsylvania. Most states received a C or D; the four states that earned an F have no open records protections for science.
Bad-faith open records requests damage science in many ways, from discouraging frank conversations to providing opportunities for hostile actors to misconstrue phrases, including scientific jargon, and use these to mislead or confuse the public.
The report is intended to help scientists and attorneys understand the best way to manage and respond to a FOIA request, and encourage policymakers to consider the special issues of scientific transparency and enact policies that protect these important materials.