Why is the University of Regina fighting its own professor’s information request?

News | by Gregory Beatty

It’s probably true that the term “Orwellian” gets over-used by journalists. Just because a story has a quirky twist doesn’t necessarily elevate it to the level of “Big Brother” perversity George Orwell wrote about in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where War was Peace, Freedom was Slavery and Ignorance was Strength.

That said, the dispute University of Regina researcher Emily Eaton currently finds herself in with the University of Regina has a definite Orwellian aura to it.

Eaton’s fight is about a freedom of information request she made as part of a research project involving the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC and Sask. Offices) and Parkland Institute (University of Alberta). The Corporate Mapping Project — funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada — is investigating the fossil fuel industry’s power and influence in western Canada.

Schools & Universities

Last summer, Eaton completed a study on the involvement of industry-funded non-profit organizations in the K to 12 system and how those groups framed issues around energy and the environment.

“Many of the organizations are based in Alberta, and teachers often participate in their professional development activities and use their resources in the classroom,” says Eaton.

“We looked specifically at teachers in oil producing areas and found that the industry had generally put forward the idea that you can’t teach about energy or climate change unless you present all sides of the story. And the industry side is a legitimate one that needs to be taught.”

That created a sense of fear in teachers, Eaton says, where they worried about being perceived as biased.

“When they were teaching about the environment and energy there was pressure to bring in and validate the fossil fuel industry’s perspective so they didn’t appear to be too pro-environment or critical of the industry,” she says.

As the next step in her research, Eaton made a freedom of information request to the University of Regina in November 2017 for records on external funding for fossil fuel research dating back to 2006.

“The goal was to look into what kind of research is being done by public and private funders around issues of climate change and energy to see where public money is being invested and what kind of influence the industry has on research agendas,” she says.

Eaton requested four pieces of information: the dollar amount of the funding, the name of the funding agency/company, the title of the research project, and the university unit that received the funding.

The university is subject to the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LA FOIP). Under the act, it has both a duty to honour freedom of information requests, and assist applicants in obtaining the desired information.

After the university pulled the records, though, it indicated to Eaton that it would only provide the titles of the grants and their amount. So the funder and recipient, two critical pieces of data for her study, would remain confidential.

Spend a few minutes on the University of Regina website and you’ll see the fossil fuel industry has a big footprint on campus. The university itself has a Petroleum Systems Engineering program. Its research focus is oil and gas extraction and mining, with a secondary mandate to “reduce environmental impacts” through “pollution remediation and greenhouse gas reduction techniques”.

There’s also the Petroleum Technology Research Centre and Clean Energy Technologies Institute. The former’s mandate is spelled out in its name. As for the latter, while it does have a green component, its research focus is carbon capture which the Saskatchewan government continues to tout as an effective technology to control emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Then there’s the Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainable Communities. Again, there’s a green element. But the Institute also produced the report last summer that forecast doom for Saskatchewan’s economy should the federal Liberal government implement a carbon tax.

The report was funded by the Saskatchewan government, and has been widely discredited.

“There seems to be this idea at the university that we can have green oil and clean coal,” says Eaton. “So I’m interested to examine how researchers are putting that case forward, and who is funding their research.”

Orwellian Arguments

When the university denied Eaton’s full information request, she complained to the privacy commissioner. In defending its decision, the university argued that a LA FOIP exemption related to trade secrets, proprietary research, third party financial interests and other commercial concerns should apply.

Ultimately, the commissioner disagreed and ruled in Eaton’s favour. But the commissioner’s office can’t force compliance on recommendations it makes. Believing its interpretation of the LA FOIP exemption is the correct one, the university is refusing to comply, so Eaton is now taking the university to court.

The case was scheduled to be heard on April 4. But the university has made an application to have the case heard in a closed court with only a judge presiding. Eaton wants the hearing to be public, so she’s had to incur additional legal expense to fight the university’s application.

“That’s a real reflection of their position in this whole process,” says Eaton. “I can’t understand what they have to hide and why they don’t want this to be heard in public. But they seem to be using every avenue available to ensure nobody hears their arguments.”

In recent media reports, the university has cited academic freedom as another important principle it’s upholding by refusing to comply with the privacy commissioner’s ruling.

“Academic freedom is meant to protect faculty members in pursuit of their teaching, research and service,” counters Eaton. “It’s there to promote our ability to engage with the public. The university is using academic freedom to protect it from the public. It’s suggesting that by making research secret and unavailable it promotes academic freedom. That’s a real perversion of what academic freedom was meant to do.”

Say, instead, that some fossil fuel industry bigwig or government official caught wind of Eaton’s research and pressured the university to shut it down. That would be a case where academic freedom was at stake.

Remember, too, that Eaton isn’t asking to review actual research data. That’s where the LA FOIP exemption to protect commercial interests could apply. Instead, she simply wants to know who the funders and recipients of the research grants are.

“I don’t have any evidence that anything nefarious is going on,” says Eaton. “It’s not like I’m in search of some scandal. I’m just interested in learning what role public and private funding have in research agendas and the research environment we have at the University of Regina.

“If the court upholds the university’s argument that they should be exempt, then we’re talking about a situation where it’s possible to have privately funded research being conducted in secret at universities,” says Eaton. “And I think that’s probably not a road we want to go down.”

Emily Eaton has a Go Fund Me page to fund her legal costs — search her name at gofundme.com for details. Learn more about the Corporate Mapping Project at corporatemapping.ca.