UC researchers balked at a request by Los Angeles city officials last week for data about the seismic safety of buildings in the city, due to the researchers’ concerns that the data, which is part of an unfinished study, could be misleading.
The study evaluates the seismic safety of a particular type of concrete building, constructed mostly before 1980, that might be more susceptible to collapse in the event of an earthquake, according to a UC statement released Friday. Scientists found approximately 1,500 structures of this type in Los Angeles.
According to LA Department of Building and Safety spokesperson Luke Zamperini, Jack Moehle, a UC Berkeley professor of engineering who participated in the study, first shared a cover letter and then a more extensive report on the research but left out the list of potentially vulnerable buildings.
LA city officials have not filed a written request for the excluded data. Zamperini said they do not intend to. He described the research as too inconclusive for the city’s purposes, adding that if the city wanted to mandate the addition of seismic-safety features to old buildings, it would have to create its own list identifying which ones to retrofit.
“As far as I know, if they don’t want to share their list with us, that’s fine,” Zamperini said. “We wouldn’t be putting it to any kind of good use anyhow.”
Nonetheless, the UC statement justified the university’s decision not to release all of the data.According to the statement, making the list public could result in “undue and unnecessary alarm” because it is part of an incomplete study and cannot be understood without proper scientific context. Researchers plan to release all their data on a public website once the project is completed.
“It is not unprecedented for members of the public, policymakers, or issue advocates to seek to obtain preliminary data from scientists,” said Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, in a statement released Friday. “There could be a significant disservice done to the public interest by releasing data that is subject to being easily misunderstood.”
According to Moehle, the university fears getting sued if the list is released. UC Berkeley law professor Mark Gergen said that as long as the researchers do not publish anything intentionally misleading, they cannot be prosecuted on legitimate legal grounds.
“As long as they’re honest, they’re home free,” he said.
But the researchers could incur extensive legal fees if they were sued, even if the claim against them has absolutely no legal grounds, Gergen said.
In the case that the city of Los Angeles really wanted data that researchers were withholding, it might be able to obtain it through California’s freedom of information laws, according to Goldman School of Public Policy adjunct professor Larry Rosenthal. But he noted that there are caveats.
“The First Amendment protects researchers’ choice whether to express themselves or not, and a reviewing court would no doubt weigh all these factors,” Rosenthal wrote in an email.
But Zamperini said the city of Los Angeles had no intention of forcing the researchers into handing over the list and had no qualms about letting it go.
“This is a litigious society,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”
Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected].