“Research is too important to keep it locked up.” (taxpayeraccess.org). Our health, the health of our environment, the drive for energy independence and more depend on scientific research. Government regulators justify their actions with scientific data. Science impacts our daily lives in more ways than most people imagine. Science neither thrives nor can it serve the public interest when much of this research is either withheld from public scrutiny or available only via expensive subscription.
Unfiltered public access to taxpayer funded science is vital because it creates the climate for a credible vigorous science with the checks and balances essential to the health of an open, democratic society.
Skepticism, from the Greek root “skepticos” means thoughtful and inquiring, and is the foundation of modern science. Scientific theories are tentative, subject to modification or even abandonment until proven through independent testing and replication. Scientists must have the means to communicate openly among themselves to validate and refine the results of their research.
Indeed, rapid and easy access to research data is the road to real world applications of scientific discoveries that give taxpayers a good return on their investment. Equally important, open scientific dialog puts the damper on dubious science and controversial theories that can be used to advance special interests at the expense of the public welfare.
Government has the power to require the release of federally funded research into the public domain as a condition of federal research grants. When Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) in May 2006, he said that “Our bill simply says to all researchers who seek government funding that we want the results of your work to be seen by the largest possible audience. It will ensure that U.S. taxpayers do not have to pay twice for the same research – once to conduct it, and a second time to read it.”
The National Institutes of Health took an important step in the spring of 2008 when they implemented a new policy with the mandate that electronic versions of all peer reviewed articles coming out of NIH funded research be made available in PubMed within 12 months of publication.
The actions of the NIH are a positive first step, but it’s not enough. Nearly half of the 57.5 billion dollars budgeted for non-defense R&D in fiscal 2008 remain locked up behind subscription only doors. And it’s not only the taxpaying public who are locked out. Skyrocketing subscription costs are forcing universities all over the country to cut back on their subscriptions, shutting scientists off from their lifeblood of peer reviewed research.
The FRPAA bill has been in limbo for over two years* after being referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security.
If the proposed legislation was put into the public limelight, brought up to date and passed, all federally funded research would be available for open access.
Government researchers make mistakes too. Controversial science and unproven research methodologies should never become the basis of far reaching, costly regulations without rigorous independent review by the scientific community.
When the Cato Institute published “The Case for Public Access to Federally Funded Research Data” in 2000, they were concerned that faulty science, conducted without independent verification, could become the basis and justification for ill-considered, costly regulations. “Without independent review of scientific data and methodological practices, policy mistakes are inevitable.”
Government regulators can and have caused substantial harm to taxpayers and the economy. They are able to justify their actions because their scientific mistakes often go unchecked and unchallenged. Indeed, the EPA’s handling of the effects of airborne asbestos is a classic case of flawed methodology used to justify mistaken regulations that have cost billions of dollars and hardship to millions with no clear benefit.
For 12 years, between 1978 and 1990, the EPA issued a series of regulations for removal of asbestos containing materials in schools. Suddenly, in 1990, the EPA reversed itself and said that asbestos should be managed in place instead of removing it. Why the reversal? The EPA has never explained but when Congress asked the EPA to measure airborne asbestos in public buildings in the late eighties, the EPA used proper measurement techniques and found no difference in airborne asbestos between the air in the government buildings and the outside air!
Independent review of agency sponsored scientific research by non-government scientists brings balance to the regulatory process and “has had a major positive effect on our knowledge about airborne asbestos, endocrine disrupters, the herbicide 2,4-D, the Dalkon Shield birth control device, and the diet drug fen-phen.” (Cato)
The Shelby Amendment, passed in the late nineties “guarantees, through the Freedom of Information Act, public access to grantee collected data that are used in support of rules or regulations.” But the OMB implementation excludes regulatory agency policies from public scrutiny and that should be fixed. (Cato)
We’re at a critical juncture. The Internet gives us the tools that can lead to a scientific renaissance. All we need is the will to take action. A savvy presidential candidate could bring the debate out into the open, give real meaning to their commitment to an open society and transparency in government and help restore the checks and balances so desperately needed to bring common sense and scientific scrutiny into the regulatory process.
I received the Sunshine Week Citizen Journalism Award when I originally published this essay on Helium in July-August 2008 during the last presidential election cycle. There’s a new bill in Congress that would lock the door on research paid for with our tax dollars:
New Bill Would Put Taxpayer-Funded Science Behind Pay Walls I decided to re-publish my essay after reading this article, especially since we are well into another presidential election cycle. * I haven’t changed the original text so the time frame needs to be understood in the context of the summer of 2008.
Click on taxpayeraccess.org for additional links to related articles about this bill.