Freedom of Information and Research

A long time ago in a country far, far away I was working for a City Council in New Zealand. In 1982, the Official Information Act was passed (similar to US freedom of information and sunshine laws) to clarify and improve the public’s access to information held by local governments.

At that time part of my role was to track information requests as they came into the Council and to make sure that we gave replies to requestors within the prescribed times. It was a role I really enjoyed—I walked from floor to floor in our building seeking out requested information and then working with management and the City’s solicitors to determine what information could, and could not, be released.

I am a wholehearted supporter of laws and rules that provide insight into the workings of public institutions. Freedom of information rules and laws are there for a reason and are an important accountability tool for these institutions. There are occasions, however, when people make requests for information for reasons that are not about accountability or transparency.

Some examples of such requests we dealt with included:

  • Fishing expeditions – essentially a trawl of information with no genuine purpose.
  • Requests for information already in the public domain.
  • Requests that were designed to be burdensome.

All three of these types of requests (and many others of a similar nature) essentially had the impact of “gumming up the works” of the information systems. So much time could be wasted on such requests that actual information clarity would be lost.

Such requests were considered either frivolous or vexatious. Luckily, at that time, the City Council in New Zealand where I worked had the ability to quickly deny them. If we denied an information request on the grounds of being frivolous or vexatious, then the requestor had the right to appeal to an independent adjudicator. (During my time in this role, we never lost one of these cases.)

So, as I watch PETA and other activist organizations make an endless series of frivolous and vexatious requests to animal research programs throughout the country, it is my firm belief that these requests are primarily designed to tie up resources and to cause frustration. Ultimately these requests are designed to be an embuggerance to these programs, thereby making research more expensive and difficult to sustain.

The impact on research of these frivolous and vexatious requests cannot be overstated. Many senior animal program administrators freely report that they spend at least two full days every month of their valuable time responding to such information requests. If you added up all of this time over the thousands of public institutions, you can see that activists’ requests are a multimillion-dollar burden on research. If you think about the opportunity costs of having researchers distracted from their work, then the cost is even higher.

Since the 2020 election, activists have been drawing on the same playbook to disrupt the work of electoral offices around the country.

Essentially our freedom of information and sunshine laws have been weaponized with a goal of frustrating effective public administration. Their aim is not accountability and transparency—their aim is to use these laws to stop researchers (and election officers) from doing their job.
I propose that the biomedical research community should ask our various legislators to give us the ability reject requests for public information where it is clear that requestor is making a frivolous and vexatious request.

As I noted, in NZ when we denied such requests, the applicant could appeal to an independent adjudicator. In NZ, the independent adjudicator was the government-funded Office of the Ombudsman. I believe that a State-level office should be established to provide this Ombudsman’s role for denied requests. Such an office, independent of research institutions (and electoral offices) would make the final ruling on denied requests. Importantly, they would also then take on the back-and-forth discussion with frivolous and vexatious requestors. These proposed changes would have the double benefit of removing this burden from research (and elections) and also bringing frivolous and vexatious requests into the public domain, where the public at large could see the requests and requestors for what they truly are, a waste of vital time, talent, and treasure.

The upcoming 2022 PRIM&R Annual Conference (PRIMR22) will bring the entire research community together and serve as a forum for discussing common themes that span the research enterprise, including considerations for communicating with the public about research and science. Attendees will have the opportunity to network and address challenges facing research programs, their administrators, and leaders. PRIMR22 takes place online December 12-15, with in-depth workshops on December 6 and December 9.

Ken Gordon joined Northwest Association for Biomedical Research in 2014. He leads the charge of a renewed focus on implementation of member services, public and youth education programs, and expansion of NWABR’s network and outreach efforts. Ken brings leadership and strategic vision to NWABR’s mission to strengthen public trust in biomedical research and its ethical conduct. With post graduate qualifications focusing on finance and public policy, he adds non-profit studies from both Harvard and Stanford Graduate Schools of Business to the NWABR organizational leadership.

Serving as a former Youth Worker, Strategic Planning Manager, CEO of a large community foundation, Executive Director of a Native American foundation and owner of a consulting group specializing in non-profit clients. Gordon is also adjunct faculty at Seattle University in the MFA Arts Leadership program, where he has taught Governance and Leadership. Gordon’s history of building cohesive teams and his familiarity with engaging grass roots gives him a unique perspective.

A native of New Zealand, Gordon has a cultural bias for helping small organizations have an impact that belies their size and as a marathon runner and triathlete believes that even the biggest projects can be successful taken one step at a time.

Gordon has served on two IACUC Committees and an IBC Committee.

Guest contributors are valued members of our community willing to share their insights. The views expressed in their posts do not necessarily reflect those of PRIM&R or its employees.