Open data is important in scientific enquiry. As recent controversies about the replicability of scientific studies has shown, it is very hard to tell how reliable a result is unless other researchers have access to the data and can test their robustness. Data availability for replication testing is even more important in politically contentious areas with policy implications.
And so it is interesting to see how open data plays out in popular media. It seems that whenever open data can be a cudgel with which to beat Big Business, it is supported (see Pharma and requests for open data on all drug trials); whenever Big Business wants access to data, well, that’s another story.
The same corporate lawyer who is seeking the Victorian information on behalf of British American Tobacco has also recently used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Cancer Institute NSW research into adults’ attitudes to smoking.
It’s understood the institute felt legally compelled to disclose the data, effectively giving Big Tobacco access to millions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded research for the price of an FOI application.
The information was then used by the tobacco company last year in Britain to contest plain packaging laws. It’s understood the Victorian school survey has produced early data that suggests plain packaging is effective.
The Victorian Cancer Council is spending thousands of dollars fighting the FOI application in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
So the Australian public health people want to keep secret the data they will use to argue that plain packaging has been a success. The press is characterising this as Big Evil Tobacco wanting the data to hone marketing to kids. But isn’t it massively more plausible that they want to check the robustness of whatever new studies are coming out to attack their intellectual property? Secret data is a poor basis for public policy, and especially where the evidence on plain packaging’s effects is hotly contested.
Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University Mike Daube, who chaired the federal government’s Expert Committee that recommended plain packaging and other tobacco control measures, said the FOI application for the school survey data “takes even the tobacco industry into new lows”.
Professor Daube said there was no guarantee the survey data would not also be accessed by alcohol companies if released, while warning that future FOI applications by tobacco and alcohol companies could be used to frustrate public health research.
“The companies claim that they have no interest in children – yet they are going to extraordinary lengths to access research data about children and tobacco, alcohol and drugs.”
He warned that even if the FOI application was defeated, Big Tobacco or its lawyers would still “have distracted a Cancer Council and world-leading researchers from their work”.
“This use of FOI legislation by the world’s most lethal industry raises another issue of enormous concern. If Big Tobacco can use FOI to harass a cancer council, what is to stop them using FOI to obtain information from any researchers employed by universities, or to tie them up in endless legal battles?”
He said governments might need to amend FOI legislation to prevent it being used in this way
Anonymising the data so it can be released for review is far from impossible. If the research on plain packaging is robust, more than just the tobacco industry will be looking at it: a pile of other researchers will play with the data and come to their own conclusions. That’s how we find out whether studies are robust.
Imagine the outcry from the likes of Daube if the alcohol or tobacco industries funded university work that produced data suggesting that regulation didn’t work well, and then industry cited commercial sensitivity as reason to not release the data to others.