The jaded public and the Freedom of Information Act

All too often I hear people say, “Why should I care what goes on in science. It doesn’t affect me.” Flabbergasted, I point out to them that lots of environmental research was going on in their own neighborhood on water pollution or air pollution. I’ll show them an EPA site or two where they can get the information that has been released to the public. The more jaded individuals point out that the government still holds a lot back from them, the more cynical suggest that it’s faked information.Inspired by these comments and attitudes, I decided to join the Union of Concerned Scientists’ symposium titled “Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information.” The first event was a webinar on the Freedom of Information Act, which is often just called by its acronym: FOIA (pronounced: foy-ya). The goal of the FOIA is to provide a way for people, whether citizen, journalist, or scientist, to request information about their government.

The first webinar speaker, Joe Davis of Society for Environmental Journalists, notes that the average person is woefully undereducated and the journalists and local activists are not using the available information to its full potential, and due to a relatively useless format, there is a lack of interest and a scarcity of people willing to work on it. Compounding on this deficiency of usefulness is also a regulation on disclosure – turns out that most people are not permitted to disclose results either under the guise of it being a matter of homeland security or trade secrets.

The second webinar speaker, Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation, goes further into the ins and outs of FOIA, and how they dodge answering the requests. Many times they search for loopholes, and give the scripted response of “We can neither confirm nor deny.” So, how can journalists, activists and the general public get hold of information? There really isn’t any way.

With this sort of barrier to information that most affects the general public, I can see why the public might be jaded toward science, especially government driven science. However, scientists should also find this deplorable. Withholding information that has to do with protecting the general health and safety of the public is morally wrong for something as flippant as protecting a trade secret in business. Also, the push to make science more apparent to the public and the push to give back to society as a key in grant righting, sharing results and information is key. However, if there is a government science project component as part of the project, there could be a backlash of funding removal.

As a volunteer teacher and writer, I have the potential to help overcome the paucity of knowledge. I am, however, short on ideas on how to change the jaded attitudes toward science in society that my little sphere of public has shown me thus far. My love and excitement for what I do only goes so far.

Image: FOIA Centre News

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