Thursday, 1 September 2011

Stirling University 0, Philip Morris 1

Today the Independent newspaper reveals that Philip Morris has made a FOI request of Stirling University's Institute of Social Marketing involving data for research on the smoking habits of young people. 

In fact it is old news: the request has already been approved by the Scottish Information Commissioner in a decision dated June 2011 that criticised the University's conduct in the affair.

The tone of the Independent on this whole issue is almost hysterical. No less than three articles by science editor Steve Connor appear in today's edition:
(a loaded way to describe a Freedom of Information request); 
(in which tobacco and climate change are treated as identical issues); and
Good that you can rely on the press to be even-handed, especially when it calls itself the Independent? I have no objection to dirty tricks being reported, but the report implies that because tobacco companies have been caught in the past being less than economical with the truth their opponents in tobacco control studies have always been and will always be beyond reproach. 

As well as these three pieces we have another by Jean King at Cancer Research (which contributed to funding for the study at issue) : 'This industry should be kept away from young people.' Tobacco is just one thing that many people agree is not a product for young people's consumption. Is this a reason for a major newspaper not to ensure that both sides are properly interviewed in a report about a dispute?

The leader ('The uses and abuses of freedom') is at least slightly measured, and concludes:
Scientific research, which has a value in its own right, but potentially also a commercial and social value, could be seen as the university's exclusive property. If the university and the research, however, have taxpayer funding, should the findings not be more widely available? In the end, the Information Commissioner might have to weigh the arguments – and that might be no bad thing.
This brings us back to the fact that the decision appears to have been made already. I would have expected the writer of a leader to know this: have there been further developments since then? The University was given until 15 August to comply, and it isn't clear what has happened since then. 

Significantly, the studies are funded by the public, and their findings are expected to (at the very least) inform public policy. Gerard Hastings' pleas that the children interviewed during these studies did not expect their data to fall into the hands of tobacco companies suggest that he hasn't fully appreciated what public funding implies. As somebody comments under the article, he should not have given assurances to subjects that would run counter to his obligations under FOI.

Significantly BMJ editor Richard Smith has also agreed that Philip Morris should see the data collected at Stirling. I agree that Philip Morris should have access too, not least because the Institute of Social Marketing and Cancer Research UK are behind the studies. Their agenda is specifically anti-tobacco, and it is hard to imagine that their research can be other than policy-led. This gives Philip Morris a legitimate interest.

Edit: The Scotsman quotes the office of the Scottish Information Commissioner: 
In a statement, the office of Scotland's Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, said: "The commissioner has not ordered the university to release the information. He has found that the request was not vexatious, and ordered the university to make a substantive response to Philip Morris International. 
"A substantive response could include release of the information in part or whole, or a refusal to release information with an explanation of why, under the provisions of the FOI Act, the university believes this to be the correct course of action.


Anonymous said...

Heard a bit of Hastings' interview on R4 today (You and Yours?) during which he rather petulantly defended Big TC's integrity in its research. I was driving at the time and nearly lost control of the car and I've concluded that TC is a major contributory factor in possible RTAs. In fact, I'd just call it a cause and be damned.

A spokesman for PM came next and seemed unaware that CRUK does not depend solely on donations from the public. It was difficult to hear her, though, as the line was poor (despite Hastings coming across loud and clear).

I'm sure it's my imagination but Winifred Robinson's voice seemed to drip with distaste when interviewing PM. Unthinkable, really, in such an experienced, serious broadcaster working for the impartial Beeb.


Belinda said...

Interesting, and especially about the quality of interview with PM.

If you'd asked me this morning I wouldn't have expected this story to get more than passing interest, but it's reached 580 comments, and counting. What's that about??

Belinda said...

Guardian says businesses should be able to access FOI too.

Belinda said...

Belinda said...

A friend gave me this:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Lysistrata . said...

Belinda: I always enjoy and am informed by your blog, but this one is a stunner! Thank you.

I attempted (with a small team of others) to research the original data and methods etc. that Linda Bauld quoted in her report earlier this year - and drew a blank on many of the areas.

It drove us crazy - Byzantine and labyrinthian were terms we used to each other to decribe the tortuous way data and research had been hidden and selectively quoted - and our frustrations at reaching several dead ends eventually stopped our publishing the detailed commentary we had prepared.

Sean Semple and his mates were fine and published their air quality sampling stuff openly by the way: credit where credit is due.

But the rest of them? Snake oil salesmen, the lot of them. What are they scared of our finding out?

Richard Thomas said...

You've missed the whole point. This is about misuse of FOI. As part of my work I have been through lists of FOI requests coming in to a Local Authority. Nearly all of them were things like this:

- attempts at sales leads e.g. requests for all details of IT equipment in the Council

- attempts by property developers to get a foot in the door by saking for info about future plans for sales of Council land

- recruitment agencies fishing for leads ("in what departments are the redundancies planned?")

There were some FOI requests from the media as well, but hardly any at all from private citizens who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of FOI.

FOI is a joke and simply provides a way for companies to extract unwarranted information from public sector organisations at taxpayers expense. This latest escapade by Philip Morris is just another example. Now FOI forces universities to hand over their intellectual property to anyone who asks for it, free of charge and before it is even published. What kind of "freedom" is that?

Belinda said...

Richard Thomas

Thanks for your comment. I would be the last to claim that FOI is perfect. I am far from convinced this is a reason to get rid of it. The public sector provides a variety of services to the community, but it can also claim a monopoly on certain kinds of information, which is detrimental to the community – whether individuals or businesses. (I would be interested to know whether requests about sales of council land are granted ... these seem to be an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.)

The tobacco case is different from the examples you have quoted. Tobacco companies, like it or not, have a legitimate stake in the tobacco market. Public policy is led by an anti-tobacco approach that resists any influence from the tobacco industry. Cancer Research UK prefers to fund studies that lend support to further regulation of tobacco, and is heavily used by the likes of ASH Scotland and Professor Hastings. This means it is policy-led: the tail is wagging the dog.

As for universities being asked to yield data before the publication of studies (shock, horror!!) – this follows on from the trend to 'science by press release', (e.g., this is not limited to tobacco issues) where the results of the study are published in the media in advance of the study itself. Researchers cannot honestly be surprised if they are challenged prior to the research being published, especially if they have already talked to the media about its conclusions.

By the way, if you have concerns that the general public is not making sufficient use of FOI, watch what happens if you try and block business from using it.