February 18, 2015

Your Right to Know: Don’t let the UW hide research records

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders

Deep in the bowels of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget is language to exempt research done by the University of Wisconsin System from the state’s open records law, unless it is published or patented.

This blanket exemption would spare the UW from needing a good reason to deny access to these records, as current law requires. Instead, universities could categorically spurn inquiries from citizens, media and even lawmakers looking into controversial research, potential threats to public safety, conflicts of interest or how tax dollars are spent.

Two prior attempts to exempt records of campus research, in 2013 and 2014, failed because Republican lawmakers refused to go along. “It clearly needs more discussion,” a UW lobbyist conceded after the second failed attempt. But now Walker has revived the idea in his budget, with little to no discussion having taken place.

A university official recently told The Associated Press that the UW merely seeks “a more level playing field” with states that restrict access to such records. This prompted editorial writer Ernst-Ulrich Franzen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to ask two excellent questions:

“But can the university offer examples of where research has been hurt by the current rules? Or examples of a loss of funding because they were unable to compete because of the current rules?”

I forwarded those questions to UW System officials, who referred the matter to Bill Barker in the UW-Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

Barker, in a detailed response, listed 24 other states that restrict access to records of university research. But UW officials, he acknowledged, “cannot point to a specific instance of lost intellectual property or misappropriated research” due to Wisconsin’s records law.

However, he said, “Given the hypercompetitive environment in which we compete for scarce research resources, we feel a proactive and conservative strategy is appropriate.” Why wait for something bad to happen when you can crack down on information preemptively?

Barker also cited the “very significant burden” of records law compliance. He said one recent request from USA Today for all open and closed session minutes for the UW-Madison’s Institutional Biosafety Committee “consumed much of one of our employee’s time for almost three-and-a-half months” because of the need to painstakingly redact certain information.

I checked in with USA Today reporter Nick Penzenstadler, who made this request. He said the paper obtained two years’ worth of minutes but noted that federal rules require these to be made public on request. In other words, changing state law would not alleviate the UW’s burden in this instance — a statement Barker, given a chance, did not refute.

Moreover, federal authorities advise there are “multiple ways to make minutes available that are relatively unburdensome to both the institution and the requester.” And in fact, Penzenstadler said, “other universities keep these records in a way so they can be posted online without months of redactions.”

Among the records at issue in USA Today’s request were those regarding a UW-Madison study on deadly pathogens that has drawn international concern about potential dangers to the public.

But Barker said the UW considers the volume of requests it receives for such records to be “an unfair assault on academic freedom which we cannot condone or support.” He specifically mentioned “lethal pathogens,” along with records of research involving animals, stem cells and climate change, as the kind of requests for which the UW sought relief.

Such disregard for Wisconsin’s tradition of open government, and for the public’s right to know, does not belong in the bowels of the state budget. The bowels, maybe, but not the budget.

Your Right to Know is distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, a reporter with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, is the group’s president.