This is final part of a 5 part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Parts 1 through 4 can and should be read first:
In brief, these articles describe how scientific research gathered by the United States government is often withheld from the general public, a type of action that can quite literally put lives at risk. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow public access to these records, but both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have so far failed to live up to the promise of the act.
But while there have been substantial challenges with gaining access to important public information, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact that we actually have a Freedom of Information Act with an appeals process and judicial review is significant. The Act continues to have strong support in the NGO community. A FOIAonline portal has been built with the goal of eventually becoming a one-stop shop for public information. The Obama administration has taken a strong positive step at Data.gov to “increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” This initiative has already saved on infrastructure costs.
And we have had disclosure successes. In 2008 the United States improved the Consumer Product Safety Act and created a searchable database for consumer information. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center and EPA have done an admirable job of reporting on historical climate variables like temperature, precipitation and drought. The US Embassy in Beijing has made electronic reports of air quality public when the Chinese government refused to do so. The federal ENERGY STAR program labels the energy footprint of appliances to aid consumers in making more energy efficient purchases.
Inside federal agencies, it would appear that some progress is being made. In 2013 UCS released a report entitled Grading Government Transparency in which they examined the ability of scientists at federal agencies to speak freely about their work. They found that many agencies’ media policies “have shown significant improvement since 2008.” In particular they note that scientists can now more easily apply their right to express personal views provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency.
This right was made considerably easier to exercise when on November 13, 2012, after an arduous 14 year journey, Congress unanimously passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. This act, for the first time, provides specific legal protection to scientists and other federal employees who expose censorship or suppression of federal research. According to Celia Wexler of the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), “We hope that this law will begin a process to change the culture of federal agencies when it comes to whistleblowers. People who protect the public from unsafe drugs, tainted food, defective products, and environmental hazards should not fear for their jobs when they speak up for safety and scientific integrity.”
Since then, other steps have been taken to make it easier for the public to obtain government information. On May 9, 2013 President Obama issued an executive order making open and machine readable data the new default for government information. Citing examples like weather data and the Global Positioning System (GPS), the president argued that making federal data freely available “can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery - all of which improve Americans’ lives.”
Then, on February 25, 2014 the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act. This amendment to the Freedom of Information Act would create a single, free website from which all FOIA requests could be made. When requests are granted, federal agencies would have to release the information in an electronic and publicly accessible format. When requests are denied, the appeals process would be streamlined. The amendment also forces federal agencies to take greater responsibility for their FOIA obligations.
As we see, the system can work. But there will always be disagreements between the public and federal agencies regarding which information should be disclosed through FOIA and which should be withheld for security reasons. When public actors feel their claims have been rejected unjustly, they can always consider seeking subpoenas.
Absent that, there are other options at their disposal to extract greater value out of the information that is public. Private technology companies can offer tools for the sharing and analysis of data. Librarians can play a more prominent role in gathering and organizing documents.
When the information being disseminated is incorrect, knowledgeable scientists should take action. They can start issue blogs and connect with members of the media. Local groups like city councils rarely hear from scientists, so researchers can have an outsized impact in regional issues. As members of one of the most respected professions, scientists would do well to build relationships with congressional representatives or their science staffers. Failure to act means allowing dissembling voices fill the vacuum.
With respect to government disclosure, as with most things, the situation is neither entirely good nor bad. But it is hard to deny that at times we Americans live in a perverse, ironic ecosystem - one in which taxpayers fund government research designed to inform and protect, only to have that same government deny us the results and claim it’s for our protection. We must continue to hold our government accountable, push for transparency where appropriate and never yield to private interests who would use our ignorance against us.