Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Freedom of Information is a tool of aggression, says President of the Royal Society

Ten weeks after the furore caused by freedom of information requests by Philip Morris, The Independent, through the voice of Sir Paul Nurse (President of the Royal Society), attacks the use of Freedom of Information as a so-called 'tool of aggression'.

Philip Morris caused consternation by requesting details about research concerning childhood smoking undertaken at Stirling University. The Scottish Information Commissioner demanded that Stirling University should issue a substantive response – as far as I know, this is still pending (but you can hear an interview with the Information Commissioner (and with Gerard Hastings of Stirling University, including a statement from Philip Morris) at the link here).

I'm not familiar with the disruption that such FOI requests can produce. But like many readers, I find it hard to see why publicly funded research should not be put at the disposal of the public. Given that tobacco companies are systematically excluded from any public health discussions involving smoking, there is some justice in allowing them to see the fruits of publicly funded research involving their own product. I don't believe that tobacco companies should dictate public health policy, but nor should they be barred from making any contributions.

Since I don't respect the exclusion of tobacco companies from public health debates, it is unsurprising that I should feel that Stirling University should comply with the FOI request. But there is also the practical point of limiting Freedom of Information. Where would you draw the lines? How would you guarantee that the people who are granted access to the information they seek are not actually related by their third cousin's marriage to someone on the Philip Morris's board of directors?

The point of principles such as Freedom of Information is to provide transparency, and limiting it destroys the concept. There is no point in enshrining a point of principle around sharing information with people that you would happily share the information with if the principle were not in place. Like the principle of habeus corpus, it must apply to anyone if it is to have any meaning at all. There's no point in agreeing not to imprison people without charge 'unless they're terrorists').

Stirling University ran a poll on Facebook which led to a lively discussion. They won the poll, and then withdrew the page because they lost most of the points in the discussion (why remove it otherwise?) I wrote to the University to ask them where the page was: answer here.

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