The Case for Public Access to Federally Funded Research Data

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Advocates of laws, regulations, and policies often use scientific data and analyses to advance their claims. In the normal course of science, controversies about data and analyses are resolved by independent researchers who attempt to replicate the data and redo the analyses. To facilitate independent review, the scientist who produces the data and analyses is generally expected to disclose his data and his methods to potential reviewers.

During the past three years, access to scientific data collected by federal grantees has become a major political issue. For instance, controversial scientific evidence was used to justify onerous regulation of particulate matter (a prominent air pollutant) and urban smog, but when Congress requested the controversial data, the grantees refused. In October 1998, Congress passed, and the president signed, Public Law 105–277, known as the Shelby Amendment. The law requires, through the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, grantees to make data that result in a published report or that are cited in a federal rule or regulation available to members of the public on request.

Although the Shelby Amendment has drawn criticism from many policy activists and scientists, public review of data and methodology is crucial for both good science and good public policy. Scientific data collected by federal agencies have often been subjected to independent review and found to be in error. Scientific research undertaken by nongovernment scientists and financed with public money should similarly be available for review by public watchdogs to ensure that any new laws and regulations based on the research are merited. If the research is soundly grounded, then independent review will underscore the merits of those laws and regulations. If not, then independent review will help society avoid costly policy mistakes.

Michael Gough is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. A biologist by training, he is the author of Dioxin, Agent Orange (1986) and a former staff member at the National Institutes of Health and the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Steven Milloy, is a former adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, is a lawyer and the publisher of the Junk Science Home Page, www​.junkscience​.com. He is the author of Science without Sense: The Risky Business of Public Health Research (1995).