Congress May Backslide on ‘Secret Science’

Published April 1, 1999

A recent victory in the war against junk science is in jeopardy . . . and now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country.

Last October, President Clinton signed Public Law 105277, the “data access” law, to ensure that all scientific data produced under a federal grant or contract (i.e., with taxpayer dollars) will be made available to the public through the procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposed on February 4, 1999 to revise federal grant policy (OMB Circular A110) to implement the provisions of the new law.

The law’s legislative history makes it clear that the scope of law is to “provide the public with access to federally funded research data used by the federal government in developing policy and rules.” The law and rule simply codify basic principles of the scientific method concerning the sharing of data that may be necessary for verifying the scientific grounds for government policy and rules.

The impetus for the law was a refusal by grant recipients of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to release data to Congress in 1997. Those data, from two questionable epidemiologic studies, formed the bases for EPA’s 1996 proposal of new air quality standards–regulations estimated to cost the public tens of billions of dollars per year. Congress had requested the data so that the studies’ results could be independently confirmed.

The request was made because epidemiologic data differ from experimental and laboratory data. While disclosure of materials and methods usually provides sufficient information for attempted replication of experimental and laboratory studies, this is insufficient in epidemiology. Epidemiologic data are collected from populations of people, and no two populations are alike. Given that many studies used to support government policy and rules report results at the edge of epidemiology’s credibility, examination of those studies requires access to the same data set.

Despite the seemingly “motherhood and apple pie” nature of the law, it is drawing a sharp, but not unexpected, negative response from the junk science community. Surprisingly, though, the law is now being attacked by the science establishment as well.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has written a letter on behalf of the Academy to OMB railing against the law. The leading science journals Science and Nature have editorialized against the law. The American Association for the Advancement of Science held a meeting to bash the law. To top things off, Rep. George Brown (D-CA) has introduced legislation to repeal the data access law.

Typifying the campaign against the law, Alberts’ letter largely ignores the law’s intent and scope. Given the Academy’s prestige, his letter has needlessly alarmed the scientific community and the public, who may be unaware of the purpose of the data access law.

Among other things, Alberts claimed in his letter that the rule would interfere with medical privacy and researchers’ proprietary rights to data. However, the data access law and proposed rule already address those concerns through safeguards in the Freedom of Information Act. Privacy and proprietary rights are legitimate issues, but procedures are in place to protect them. In light of prior National Research Council reports on data-sharing, raising these issues as novel problems is pure fear-mongering.

Alberts’ letter identifies “astronomers, molecular biologists, atmospheric chemists, high energy physicists, geoscientists, clinical investigators, plant biologists, materials scientists and engineers, etc.” as potentially subject to the new rule. Epidemiologists are not mentioned, even though their data, insofar as they are used to justify federal policy and rules, are the primary focus of the law.

Regardless of what motivates those opposed to the data access law, if they succeed the effect will be to shield members of the government-funded epidemiologic community from data-sharing and, ultimately, scientific scrutiny. The public will pay the price in terms of liberty-threatening, burdensome, and expensive regulation. The scientific community doesn’t yet realize that it, too, may pay a price for “secret science”–a loss of public confidence in scientists and science.

Those concerned about the fate of the data access law and use of junk science in the setting of public policy need to get involved. The proposed rule may be found online at You can send your comments to OMB at [email protected] including all your comments in the body of the e-mail (no attachments). Or snail-mail your comments to Mr. F. James Charney, Policy Analysis, Office of Management and Budget, Room 6025, New Executive Office Building, Washington DC 20503. The deadline for comments is April 5, 1999.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of the Junk Science Home Page.