Rhode Island strengthens laws protecting scientific research

A new law clarifies that certain academic work is protected from public records requests.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon
CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

As the Trump administration launches an official initiative to question mainstream, peer-reviewed climate science, some states are looking to better protect climate researchers from intimidation by outside groups.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) recently signed into law legislation clarifying that certain parts of academic research — such as working papers, preliminary drafts, and notes — are exempt from public records requests.

Proponents of the bill argue that it will help protect researchers from intimidation — from special interest groups trying to sway a researcher’s interpretation of data to public records requests meant to chill communication and collaboration between researchers.

“It’s really important for scientists to be able to be frank with each other and to make each other’s theories and research better by pointing out where it could be improved,” Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “If every email and handwritten note is going to be dragged out into the public, scientists will be less likely to be frank with each other, and the research itself will suffer.”

While Rhode Island’s new clarification applies to academic research broadly, Aaron Ley, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island who helped craft the legislation, noted that it could be especially helpful for climate researchers, who in recent years have become the target of intimidation and harassment campaigns funded by climate denial groups.


In the early 2010s, for instance, the American Tradition Institute — now the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, with ties to both the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers and the coal industry — filed Freedom of Information requests in at least five states, asking for an extensive trove of documents from climate researchers. The most famous of these requests asked the University of Virginia for documents and emails related to Dr. Michael Mann, a climate researcher whose work has helped scientists understand rapid temperature changes in recent years.

The Virginia Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the University of Virginia and Mann, finding that unpublished research is exempt from Virginia public records requests. But records requests asking scientists for unpublished or private correspondence can have a chilling effect on research, making scientists hesitant to openly share information, ideas, or criticism with one another for fear that their words could be twisted by public interest groups. In an email to ThinkProgress, Mann described the records request as an abuse of open records laws as well as “an effort to intimidate me and discredit my research.”

Scientific papers are already subject to rigorous review and documentation through the peer-review process, and many top journals also require that data be made publicly available after a study is published. For that reason, Ley shrugged off concerns that strengthening laws protecting scientists could inadvertently protect scientists working at the behest of industry or producing subpar work. “Research should be able to stand on its own merit,” he said. “At the end of the day, people are really putting their professional integrity on the line if they are producing bad research.”

Ley was also inspired by the current presidential administration, which has shown itself to be antagonistic towards scientists and the scientific process. Administrator Scott Pruitt, for instance, has notified 47 of the EPA’s scientific advisors that they will not be renewed for another term of service, reportedly to make room for more industry scientists. The EPA has also deleted accurate climate science information from the agency’s webpage.

“With the current administration, they’ve sent some very strong signals that free academic research is not going to be tolerated,” Ley told ThinkProgress. “I think that was something that made people realize that is really important to protect the research process.”


The legislation was supported by both the ACLU of Rhode Island and Common Cause, a nonprofit group that advocates for government accountability. Ley says that the legislation was not meant to be overly broad, or to impede on public transparency, but instead was meant to support public university scientists should they ever receive an open records request and find themselves in court.

“If anything ends up before a judge, that judge will see that we went to the legislature, we clarified the law, and at the end of the day we expect that when FOIA laws are being interpreted, that they will err on the side of academic research,” Ley said.

And while no University of Rhode Island researchers are currently embroiled in legal challenges related to public records requests, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Halpern said that it is helpful for the state to clarify exemptions before any particular challenges might arise.

“Scientists find themselves under enormous scrutiny from all kinds of different commercial interests when their research finds potential harm of products or processes,” Halpern said. “It’s great to see a state getting out ahead of any controversy to clarify the fact that researchers will be able to pursue their work without being harassed.”