Now, activists are claiming the school is looking to limit access to public records as a way to cover up campus research using animals.
UW officials have been trying to convince lawmakers to back legislation or insert language into the budget that would keep research hidden from the public until it is published or a patent application is filed. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported on the issue Thursday.
The UW says a change is needed because of a shift in U.S. patent law earlier this year that grants patents to the first entity to file. Officials contend competitors could file an open records request on current research and then race to seek patent protection for ideas actually originating from work in Wisconsin.
But activists say the real intent is to block access to records requested by groups like the Madison-based Alliance for Animals.
“Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin bamboozled lawmakers into approving an exemption for all its animal experimentation from Wisconsin’s crimes against animals statutes,” the Alliance said in an email. “Now the UW has asked lawmakers to exempt information about the things they are doing to animals from Wisconsin’s public records laws.”
A memo from the UW to legislators leads with the intellectual property and patent argument but does indeed mention animal research issues further down, noting the university spends more than $100,000 annually dealing with records requests from activist groups.
“The effect is that Wisconsin taxpayers are subsidizing campaigns spearheaded by animal rights groups,” the memo says. “In addition to the costs borne by the taxpayers, these campaigns put the university at a competitive disadvantage to private institutions or public universities in states with exemptions to their public records laws for research records.”
The UW memo says a revision to the open records law would “eliminate the incredible disruption to ongoing research that is caused by subjecting information generated by current research studies to the public records law (basically, the researcher has to drop everything to assist responding to a public records request and if one faculty member gets targeted by a series of requests by animal rights groups — which happens pretty frequently — it can bring the research to a standstill).”
But the Alliance contends that researchers can already do anything they want to an animal because of the legislation passed two years ago and are now trying to get policymakers to ensure they can also keep it secret.
“This is another example of the University of Wisconsin’s attempt to keep its use of animals hidden,” says the Alliance’s email.
UW officials could not immediately be reached for a response. But in the memo they argue that animal research is already highly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, among other agencies.