New Law Could Open Up Lab Books

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Tucked into the giant spending bill that Congress passed last month is a tiny provision that has some academic researchers seeing red: Their data may be fair game for anyone who asks. The few words added to the section funding the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would extend the federal Freedom of Information Act--a 1966 law that makes many government documents available to the public--to extramural grants.

The worry is that scientists at universities, hospitals, or nonprofit organizations might be forced to turn over the contents of computer disks, or even their lab notebooks, if someone filed a request with the federal agency that funded their work. At present, only funding agencies themselves can demand grantees' data. "We're all very troubled," says Wendy Baldwin, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health. There is also concern that data not yet published, or even analyzed, might be subject to the new rule.

The roots of the provision go back to last year's controversy over new Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules for fine soot. Industry groups and some legislators demanded that academic researchers hand over their data on the health effects of the pollution. That led to an unsuccessful legislative proposal requiring public data release (Science, 8 August 1997, p. 758). Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) slipped the new language into the massive spending bill passed before Congress adjourned (Science, 23 October, p. 598). "The taxpayers have a right to much of this information," says Shelby.

Some observers are outraged. "It is ironic that a provision described as a sunshine provision needed to be tucked into a 4000-page bill in the dead of night," says Representative George Brown (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee. Other researchers worry that the directive will give industry a new tool for stalling health regulations. According to OMB's Gilbert Tran, however, the White House is "going to work with the agencies to make sure that principal investigators have plenty of protection before they are asked to give up any data."

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