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CongressLine - Freedom of Information: the Newest Nemesis of the Scientific Community

By Carol M. Morrissey, Published on April 18, 1999

The Scientific Community

Scientists are concerned that the new guidelines will allow the public access to everything from handwritten lab notes to specimens and that it will also jeopardize the confidentiality of human subjects used in research projects. The possibility that this mandate will have such a sweeping scope and breadth has researchers alarmed and scrambling to block or restrict public access to their research data. Several organizations are actively involved in the comment process and over 3000 comments had been received by OMB by the end of March, 1999.

Please visit the following websites to see comments submitted by a few of the major organization involved in research; The Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the National Association of State Universities, comments can be accessed at http://www.tulane.edu/~aau/A110ltr4.5.99.html; The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), comments are at http://www.nas.edu/includes/letter.htm; the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), comments are at http://www.aamc.org/advocacy/corres/research/a110foia.htm, the AAMC also has an Issue Brief available at http://www.aamc.org/advocacy/issues/research/a110foia.htm, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has its comments at http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/sfrl/projects/omb/ombltr.htm.

There are those within the scientific community who support increased public access to research data. The President and CEO of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology (CIIT), Roger McClellan spoke before the AAAS in February where he called for a joint committee composed of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine to evaluate the proposals so that both the public and private interests would be sufficiently addressed. The CIIT has also announced that it will be making certain ecological and health-related test results available to the public starting this year. For the text of Mr. McClellan's comments, please go to http://www.ciit.org/Newsrs/ROMspeech.

AAU/ACE/NASULGC Letter to OMB Regarding Circular A-110

Albert's Letter to OMB

AAMC Comments

AAMC Issue Briefs

AAAS Comments

 

 

 

 

Mr. McClellan's Comments

Remarks by Representative George Brown

Rep. Brown's Comment Letter to OMB

 

 

Congress Moves to Protect Academic Freedom

The considerable press which the Shelby language generated also attracted the attention of some of Sen. Shelby's colleagues on the Hill who were none too pleased with the manner in which this provision came to be part of the Omnibus bill. Sen. Shelby circumvented the legislative process by amending the appropriations bill with language which had not been introduced as a stand alone bill or ever reviewed by a committee in a hearing. Not to mention that the amendment was to implement a major revision to the FOIA, requiring a rulemaking.

One particular member of Congress chose to take action and on January 6, 1999, Rep. George Brown (D-CA) introduced H.R. 88, which would effectively repeal the Shelby provision. (For the text of H.R. 88, please go to http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c106:h.r.88.ih:. The text of Rep. Brown's remarks in the Congressional Record upon introduction of the bill can be found at http://www.house.gov/science_democrats/member/gb990107.htm. Rep. Brown's comment letter to OMB can be found at http://www.house.gov/science_democrats/archive/gbona110.htm. H.R. 88 has been referred to the House Committee on Government Reform.

Taking Sides

There are arguments that can be put forth on both sides of the issue. The AAAS has taken the position that research notes, specimens - raw data - is proprietary information. Thus, the FOIA revision to Circular A-110 would allow the public to infringe upon the intellectual property rights of the researchers. Others, see a more serious disease at work here in the possible use of FOIA by advocacy groups to discourage or halt research they oppose. There is also the exposure of human subjects to the glare of the spotlight, perhaps making it more difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to attract people for the purpose of research. Conversely, the increasing commercialization of research has been slowly moving the scientific and research communities towards more openness and sharing of information. Many in the community already adhere to the principle that where health and safety issues are involved the public has a right to be made aware of the data behind the research.

Hopefully both sides will be able to work together to forge quidelines which both protect privacy and promote an open exchange of ideas. Right now the issue is on hold. H.R. 88 has not seen any legislative action. OMB is now in the process of reviewing the comments they received in response to their February 4, 1999 proposal. Now, as is the Washington way, we wait for the next move.