Emily Eaton said a dangerous precedent will be set if the University of Regina — her employer — is allowed to keep information about who is paying for research a secret.
“Is it OK for private, secretive research to be done in a public institution using public money?” the U of R professor asked.
Eaton, who researches the effects of the fossil fuel industry on Saskatchewan education, requested the names of private funders who donated money to research on oil, gas, coal and climate change at the university in a freedom of information request.
The university refused to disclose the information, arguing that would put academic freedom and future funding at risk. Eaton sued the university, seeking the release of the information.
“It feels very slimy,” Eaton said Wednesday after a court hearing on the matter. “Academic freedom is there to allow people to actually engage and research and engage with the public in their research — not to wall researchers off from the public.”
Eaton’s lawyer Dan LeBlanc spoke at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Regina on Wednesday. He said people should know and debate the potential effects of the fossil fuel industry on Saskatchewan education, but they lack the data to do so.
He asked Justice Meghan McCreary to consider how freedom of information requests are meant to further democracy when evaluating this case.
A ‘chilling’ effect
The university says the publication of funding agencies and recipients could have a “chilling” effect.
Erin Kleisinger spoke for the university in court, maintaining the university’s position that it is trying to protect the academic freedom of faculty members and maintain competitiveness.
Kleisinger said revealing this information would bring harm and prejudice to the university. She said the refusal is meant to protect academics conducting “controversial,” “sensitive” or “innovative” research.
Kleisinger called climate change, carbon capture and fossil fuels “polarizing issues.” She told the judge that releasing funder identities and recipients could lead to “safety concerns” brought on by the “possibility of protests” or “backlash” that could hinder, interfere with or prevent the progress of a research project.
The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act states the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina, hospitals or health centres are allowed to refuse to share details of academic research, though they must share the title of the research and the amount of funding being received.
The university has argued that details requested by Eaton could potentially identify individual academics.
Eaton said it could be justified in some cases to withhold information, but that should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
‘Something really big to hide’
Eaton said private contracts for research often have restrictive requirements, including being unable to publish the results depending on what you find.
“If they’re attaching strings to your funding, [the corporations] are actually a greater threat to academic freedom than disclosing that they’re funding it, as the university is arguing.”
Eaton said she’s not sure why the university is going to such lengths to fight her request.
“Either they have something really big to hide, or I think they’re really jumping the gun on a matter of collegial governance that we should be discussing as an institution.”
The judge reserved her decision. She advised the court that it likely will be summer by the time its ready, due to a busy court schedule.