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Update: A pause for science secrecy bill in California

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  1. Freedom of Information

Update #2 (5/3/19): The Reporters Committee welcomes the announcement from California that the sponsor of legislation (AB 700) to shield communications and other information related to scientific research will not bring the bill up for a vote in the full Assembly this year.

We thank Assemblymember Laura Friedman for listening and committing to improving the legislation.

We and other groups argued the bill as written would shield too much from public scrutiny. “Over the past month, I’ve heard from a number of organizations and advocates about their concerns and outright opposition to the bill,” Friedman wrote in a Facebook post on May 2. ”AB 700 was never intended to obscure animal research, sexual harassment, or professional wrongdoing. That’s why I’m putting a hold on the bill for this year.”

The Reporters Committee will continue working with the bill’s sponsors and supporters to identify narrower changes to existing law as needed.

Update (4/23/19): AB700 has been pulled from the agenda of the Assembly Appropriations Committee meeting for April 24, 2019.)

(Originally posted 4/22/19)

The California legislature is set to advance a well-intentioned but ill-considered bill (Assembly Bill 700) that would, if enacted, prevent discovery of wrongdoing in and undue influences on scientific research at California colleges and universities, and affiliated centers.

The bill’s purpose of protecting science from abusive records requests is understandable, but this bill would do more to perpetuate malignant influences than to inoculate science from them.

Allegations of sexual misconduct in the lab, or undisclosed financial ties between a researcher or an organization affiliated with a public university and a private entity could go undiscovered.

We encourage the legislature to press the pause button for this session on this hasty effort until it can find better, narrower solutions allowing researchers independence while ensuring disclosure of misconduct allegations and undisclosed financial ties that may influence scientific progress.

Rather than limiting itself to protecting the confidentiality of the unpublished research data and notes, the bill casts a wide net in several respects. Its provisions apply broadly in two ways. First, as written, AB 700 broadly covers any researcher working at or in affiliation with a public postsecondary educational institution in California. Second, it allows confidentiality for any information relating to a researcher or their research  “protected by patent, trademark, copyright, license, or any other effort that is reasonable under the circumstance to maintain its secrecy” (emphasis added). This could be interpreted to mean that the only standard that would be used to determine whether records would be disclosed is whether the confidentiality was reasonable to protect the information, regardless of any public interest in disclosure.

In recent weeks, sponsors added a white list of information that could not be kept secret. Those changes would still, however, allow allegations of workplace misconduct to stay secret until disciplinary action is taken against a researcher, and only then if the discipline relates to the research.  What does that mean for allegations of discrimination or of pressuring a colleague for sex if the academic institution does nothing? Such stories would be harder to bring to the public if this legislation becomes law.

The California News Publishers Association argues the bill creates a broad exemption from disclosure to address the narrow problem of groups targeting researchers using public records requests. We agree. We join them in committing to working to improve this legislation.

For now, as written, the legislation does not reflect the presumption of transparency that California (and federal) open records law starts from, the narrow approach that any exemption from public disclosure should take, and the public’s interest in knowing how research institutions around the U.S. operate as workplaces and in pursuit of their lofty scientific missions.