Don't Need No Stinkin' Freedom of Information—Shut Up and Just Trust What We Tell You


New Royal Society motto: Information is what I tell you it is

The motto of the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific organization, is "Nullius In Verba," which is generally translated as "Take no man's word for it." In other words, ask for data to substantiate claims.

Yesterday, according to the Guardian, the president of this august body, Sir Paul Nurse, expressed concern that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) queries to scientists are getting in the way of their research and are being used to "intimidate" them. He specifically cited the example of climatologists at the University of East Anglia who felt inundated by FOIA requests. Of course, the fact that UEA climatologists were ignoring or deliberately withholding information came to light after leaked emails produced the Climategate furor. 

As the Guardian reports:

Nurse said that, in principle, scientific information should be made available as widely as possible as a matter of course, a practice common in biological research where gene sequences are routinely published in public databases. But he said freedom of information had "opened a Pandora's box. It's released something that we hadn't imagined … there have been cases of it being misused in the climate change debate to intimidate scientists.

That "in principle" is a nice touch. It is certainly the case the FOIA queries can be onerous and may well be abused, but transparency in science is paramount. Richard Tol, an economist whose work focuses on the costs and benefits of climate change, observes:

The solution to Sir Paul's problem is simple: If academics do not like the scrutiny that comes with being paid by the taxpayers, they should stop accepting public money.

Remember: Nullius In Verba.  Whole Guardian article can be found here.