Compromise Academy Bill Passes House

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The House approved a bill yesterday that would exempt the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) from strict openness rules involving federal advisory panels, but would still require it to make its panels more accountable to the public. Whether the bill will pass the Senate is uncertain, but White House officials say that President Bill Clinton would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Academy leaders as well as critics are hailing the legislation as a practical compromise that will expand public accountability while protecting panels organized by the National Research Council (NRC)--the academy's operating arm--from outside pressure. "We're extremely encouraged by passage of the House bill and hope for swift Senate action," says NRC Chair Bruce Alberts. Earlier this year, a court determined that the academy was subject to the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (ScienceNOW, 6 May), which mandates agencies to keep meetings open and divulge their paperwork. Academy leaders maintain that such provisions would seriously damage the NRC's independent role in advising the government, while animal-rights and environmental advocates charge the NAS is too cozy with the federal entities, such as the Department of Energy, that fund NRC studies.

Although exempting the academy from the act, the bill would require it to allow public comment on the choice of NRC committee members and to provide summaries of all meetings. It also orders the NRC to reveal the names of the reviewers who approve the panels' reports, information that has traditionally been kept secret. Panel members would retain other privileges: While they must keep open information-gathering meetings, they would have the right to close the doors during any deliberations--not just when national security or personal privacy is at stake.