'Travelling down a dangerous road': U of R professor says public institutions should have to disclose funding partners
This is an updated version of a previous story. A former version of this story stated that the University of Regina did not respond to multiple requests for comment. CTV News sent two requests and the university says it did not receive them. The University of Regina has since provided its response. The new version of the story is below.
A researcher at the University of Regina is calling for transparency at publicly funded institutions, following a Freedom of Information request (FOIP) into private and public funding that was denied.
The main focus of Emily Eaton’s research is to understand the influence of the energy sector in Western Canadian post-secondary institutions. When her FOIP was denied in 2017 by the institution where she is employed, the University of Regina, she took her concerns to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Eaton’s FOIP requested the funding amounts, the funding agency giving the money, the title of the research project and the school or department that received the funds for each.
Eaton said she was feeling the push back from the university from the time she began searching for the information.
“Public institutions are receiving less and less funding from governments,” Eaton said. “That leaves them increasingly open to partnering with third parties or the private sector. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but if we’re going to be denied access to even the fact that they’re partnering that means that scrutiny over the interests behind those partnerships is precluded.”
The University of Regina’s is governed by the The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LAFOIPOP). This act allows universities to “refuse to disclose details of the academic research being conducted by an employee of the University.”
After Eaton filed her appeal, the University of Regina moved to have both sides of the case kept closed to public, a move that was denied by the Court of Appeal’s Justice M.R. McCreary earlier this month.
“The University considered the Commissioner’s report and provided Dr. Eaton with a decision on December 24, 2018, in which it largely declined to follow the Commissioner’s recommendations. Dr. Eaton then appealed the University’s decision to this Court,” according to Court of Queen’s Bench documents.
Eaton said transparency is required when asking universities what partnerships they’re engaging in, how partnerships are affecting research and teaching trajectories, and whose interests those partnerships are serving.
“When I publish a paper I have to disclose who funded my research,” Eaton said. “And I think we’re travelling down a dangerous road if we’re going to start exempting researchers from doing that as basically conducting research in secret at a public institution.”
“Often, University researchers are conducting work that is unique, sensitive, controversial, confidential and potentially proprietary in nature. Releasing information related to some research activities could put research at risk, and undermine competitiveness both for the University and its researchers. ." a spokesperson for the university said in a statement.
Eaton is part of a partnership grant called “Mapping the Power of the Carbon-Extractive Corporate Resource Sector”, which is a joint venture between various Western Canadian universities and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“One project looks at the oil industry's influence on rural institutions and culture in oil-producing municipalities. And another examines the influence of oil and energy interests in Saskatchewan’s education system,” Eaton’s staff page reads.
Eaton has fundraised to cover her legal costs through a GoFundMe page.