Animal research has played a vital role in virtually every major medical advance of the last century. These advances have led to an increased ability to prevent, detect and treat diseases and illnesses that affect the health and safety of both humans and animals. Animal research is also highly regulated and records detailing the use of animals are often submitted to federal agencies and state public bodies. Investigators should always be in full compliance with relevant laws and regulations. Investigators should also realize that records in the possession of a federal agency or state public body are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or state open records laws.
Open records laws embody the principle that an open government and informed citizenry are vital to the functioning of a democratic society and are needed to check against corruption and to hold the government accountable. However, these laws also recognize that disclosure of certain information may conflict with fundamental societal values, such as personal privacy. Therefore all open records laws contain exemptions to protect some sensitive information. The federal FOIA governs requests made to federal agencies such as the NIH, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The federal FOIA does not govern access to records held by state or local government agencies, or entities deemed by state law to be governmental bodies. All states have their own open records laws governing public access to state and local government records. Many of these state laws are generally patterned after the federal FOIA, but they vary by state and often contain important differences. Under these laws, public universities are considered state governmental bodies and are therefore subject to state open record requests.
With the goal of ending responsible use of animals in research, animal rights activists are increasingly using public information requests under the federal FOIA and state open records laws to identify principal investigators (PIs) using animals and to obtain information about biomedical research grant projects. Many animal rights activists post the information they receive to Internet sites that label investigators as animal “abusers.” These sites often encourage harassment of PIs and sometimes facilitate or suggest the use of violence.
Institutions and researchers should understand these laws well and fully comply with open records laws when requests are received.
This document provides information about FOIA responsibilities and suggestions to assist researchers and university administrators/advisors when responding to open records requests. To view this valuable tool, please click here.