The Information Commissioner has told Queen’s University in Belfast to hand over its tree rings data to a climate change sceptic.
The university refused to hand over the electronic data to independent researcher and climate change sceptic Douglas Keenan when he requested it under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007, citing high costs (section 12 of the Act).
The information is used to study historical climate change, and the university holds data from more than 40 years of research.
Keenan then appealed this decision and asked for the information to be provided under Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). In response, the university said the data was exempt from the EIR, claiming it was incomplete, commercially confidential and was subject to intellectual property rights.
However, the Information Commissioner said in his decision notice: "The Commissioner finds that none of the exceptions is engaged and the withheld information should therefore be disclosed."
The ICO ruled that Queen’s could be in contempt of court if it does not provide the research data by 3 May.
In his decision notice on 29 March, the ICO also said that the university was guilty of "procedural breaches" by taking 32 working days to respond to review requests. By failing to provide responses within 20 working days of receipt of the request, the ICO said the university breached regulation 5(2) of the EIR.
Furthermore, the ICO did not uphold Queen’s claim that it would be too much work to provide the requested tree data.
Queen’s holds its data on 67 floppy disks, containing 150 folders of relevant data. Through its investigations, the commissioner found that it would take on average around five minutes to transfer the data folder to folder using Notepad. The ICO therefore estimated that the task to copy all the information would be just 12.5 hours, and as a result said that this "would not constitute a significant burden on QUB."
The university has until April 26 to appeal against the ICO’s ruling.
Cameron Craig, partner and head of the EU Information Law Team at DLA Piper, said: "This case highlights the importance for public authorities of following the correct procedures with regards to requests for information.
"Organisations should be careful that they do not get tripped up by specific differences in the laws such as those found in the FoI Act and the EIR. As a starting point, they need to understand which law to apply. Also, organisations need to comply with the basic procedural requirements, such as replying to requests within the specified timeframes, to avoid procedural breaches that attracted criticism from the Assistant Commissioner in this case."