White House May Not Bare All Science

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Last fall, Congress dropped a bombshell on the scientific community by quietly passing a law that appeared to open up the raw data of all federally funded researchers to public scrutiny. Yesterday, the Clinton Administration released its proposal for carrying out the new law--a plan that limits what data could be requested, and when. Though relieved, agency officials and scientific groups still voice concerns about the plan.

Slipped into the 1999 omnibus spending bill by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the law requires that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) amend its rules for extramural grants such that "all data" collected using federal funds would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Shelby and other lawmakers argued that data funded by taxpayers and used to craft regulations ought to be publicly available.

The scientific community reacted with deep concern, citing numerous worries about the law (Science, 15 January, p. 307). Among other things, they argued, it could prevent researchers from analyzing and publishing their data before it became public; it might invalidate clinical trails by allowing subjects to find out what treatment they were getting; and it could give companies access to proprietary information.

At least some of those concerns appear to have been addressed in OMB's proposed rule, which appeared yesterday in the Federal Register. The rule would apply only to "published research findings ... used by the Federal Government in developing policy or rules." Furthermore, agencies would determine which data were exempt under FOIA guidelines that protect proprietary and private medical information. "There is much less cause for concern," says Robert Lanman, legal adviser for the National Institutes of Health.

But OMB's plan leaves many issues unresolved, including the definition of "data"--whether it would include lab notebooks, for example. The public has 60 days to submit comments on the proposal before a final version is hammered out.