Energy & Environment

Don’t close the door on open science

With the complex challenges facing our planet, never have we needed science more. That recognition is part of the motivation driving a scientific revolution — the Open Science Movement — that aims to make research and data widely accessible to all sectors of society. After all, shouldn’t we ensure broad use of science, particularly for research that has the potential to inform decisions made by government, business, industry, nongovernmental organizations and individuals? For science that can improve people’s lives, shouldn’t everyone have access? The Open Science Movement works toward making science available so that it can be used to to improve human health and well-being, accelerate discovery and innovation, and stimulate new ways of thinking.

{mosads}The momentum for Open Science has been growing for years. The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science Act (America COMPETES Act), signed by President Bush in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010, required federal agencies to promote open exchange of data and research among agencies, the public and policymakers. The bar was raised further in a 2013 memo from John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who instructed federal agencies to make results from research funded with taxpayer dollars freely available within 12 months after publication. We’ve since seen data-sharing requirements unrolled by agencies like the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, creation of new data-sharing networks like Data Observation Network for Earth (DataOne) and a wide variety of publicly available datasets.

The Open Science Movement provides an interesting backdrop for two recent bills being considered by the House. Despite using open science ideas and language, are these bills actually in sync with the intent of the Open Science Movement — to promote and facilitate wider use of science? Or do they undermine it? Let’s take a closer look.

H.R. 1030, the Secret Science Reform Act, prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from proposing, finalizing or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent, accessible or reproducible. The bill specifically requires that all scientific and technical information (i.e., data, materials, protocols, computer codes and models) used by the agency be publicly available online in a form that allows independent analysis and reproduction of results.

H.R. 1029, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, changes the rules governing who may serve as a board member. The amendments in this bill make it more difficult to engage scientists who have conducted research that may directly or indirectly be reviewed as part of the advisory activity.

Simple, right? So why are these bills such problems? In the case of the Secret Science Reform Act, the bill calls for a level of disclosure and accessibility that, in many cases, cannot realistically be achieved in the timeframes necessary for decision-making and regulatory activities. For example, the best or most important science — particularly for emerging risks and problems — often comes from recently completed studies. Even for peer-reviewed science already accepted for publication (a process that can take several months), publication can take additional months and, during that time, there may be legal restrictions on sharing intellectual property or proprietary interests. This means that under the Secret Science Reform Act, the most cutting-edge science would likely be excluded from the agency’s consideration. The accessibility requirement under this bill also is likely to violate federal mandates and other efforts designed to protect the confidentiality of human subjects (e.g., public health studies) and private property (e.g., environmental data), again preventing their use by the EPA.

As noted in a letter from 50 scientific societies and universities, if the Secret Science Reform Act is enacted, the EPA may be further prevented from considering studies that cannot be reproduced, as is the case with one-time events (like the Deepwater Horizon spill) or where large populations are tracked over long periods of time, as is common in public health research. Requiring online accessibility, itself, may constrain the number of studies used by the agency (about 50,000 studies annually) due to the high cost of implementation, which is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $250 million or more each year.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act would also limit consideration of science by outlining who may participate in the advisory process. The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote a letter criticizing the bill for limiting participation by scientists currently or previously engaged in research on review topics. Indeed, the new rules would restrict input on advisory activities from the scientists most qualified to provide advice — individuals who are experts in the field with substantial experience studying and publishing on the issue under discussion. Paradoxically, the new rules facilitate participation by experts with financial ties to corporations or industries affected by science advisory board reviews.

The Open Science Movement is a move in the right direction and one with tremendous potential benefit to society. These benefits are widely recognized and endorsed by the scientific community and others who strive to make science accessible, transparent and publicly disclosed. But the Secret Science Reform Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act fall short of moving us toward the aspirations of the Open Science Movement. Rather, these two House bills are likely to impede efforts to use science to inform decisions related to human health and well-being and close the door on some of the science and input most needed to support the EPA’s decision-making and regulatory processes.

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags America COMPETES Act Environmental Protection Agency EPA EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act Open science Secret Science Reform Act
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