Science Package Addresses Access to Federally-Funded Research, Scientific Collections

The House today approved the Senate's amendments to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (HR 5116). The bill now heads to President Obama for his signature. Among a variety of science-related topics, the COMPETES reauthorization contains two provisions about public access to federal science.

The first provisions directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to create an interagency working group to coordinate public access to and preservation of data and publications generated by federally-funded research. Currently, policies about data and publications vary widely among federal funding agencies. The working group is tasked with establishing priorities for such policies and reporting back to Congress in one year.

Although there are clear benefits to open public access to scientific publications, the impact of this provision is less clear. As open access advocate Peter Suber writes,

Friends and foes of [open access] worry that the committee might settle the unsettled details of federal [open access] policy in unpredictable ways. Each side wonders whether it might take the wind out of the sails of a stronger policy like FRPAA [the proposed Federal Research Public Access Act].

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) also recognized the uncertainty in the provision, stating that the working group "should not interfere with the policy of the National Institutes of Health, which requires free public access to the published results of research funded by NIH. This legislation should not be interpreted to restrict existing open access to scientific knowledge, or to prevent its expansion."

An entomologist examines butterfly specimens.

The bill's other access provision requires OSTP to develop policies for managing federal scientific collections: sets of physical specimens, from moon rocks to human tissues, collected for research purposes. As former OSTP director John Marburger noted in a 2009 report, such collections support regulatory, management, and policy decisions as well as scientific research.

Improving online access to these collections is one goal of the new provision. The bill requires OSTP to develop an online clearinghouse for information about the collections. The provision codifies an Oct. 2010 memo by OSTP which directed agencies to publish information about their collections within 36 months.

Image by Peggy Greb for the Agricultural Research Service. In the public domain.

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