Information may want to be free, but sometimes researchers just don't want to let it go. During the 1997 debate about the Environmental Protection Agency's new limits on airborne particles and ozone, for example, the authors of a federally funded study that was cited to support the stricter standards refused to make their raw data public. (See "Polluted Science," August/September 1997.)
In response to such stonewalling, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) inserted a little-noticed provision into the omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last fall. It says researchers who receive federal grants have to make their data available to the funding agency, which in turn must release them to anyone who files a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Previously, federal agencies had a contractual right to obtain research data, but they were not required to exercise it. "Lack of public access to research data feeds general public mistrust of the government and undermines support for major regulatory programs," Shelby said before the bill was passed.
Some researchers worry that access to the data on which government policy is based will only magnify public mistrust. New York University environmental scientist George Thurston, who did some of the research on which the EPA relied for its revised particulate regulations, sees a danger in too much openness.
"It's the most insidious thing," Thurston told the Daily Environment Report, "because it sounds like a good thing at first blush." In an interview with Science, he predicted that "vested interests will misuse [the Shelby provision] to discredit valid research results they don't like and to harass the researchers doing the work."
Yet one man's harassment is another's vigorous criticism, long thought to be an essential element of the scientific process. "If the research is sound," University of Chicago chemist R. Stephen Berry dared suggest to Chemical & Engineering News, "then it will withstand the kind of analysis that these interests want to do."