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Towards Open Access to Government Science: The Obama Administration Takes Some Important Steps

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This week, the National Research Council is holding public comment meetings on increasing public access to federally funded research—both access to the data and publications. We encouraged the UCS Science Network to weigh in with their own ideas on how the government can increase public access to its science. After all, this is the science that we all pay for through our tax dollars.

This public comment meeting comes fresh on the heels of President Obama’s executive order and accompanying open data policy unveiled last week that make “open and machine-readable the new default for government information.” The move was well received by the open government community as “monumental” and “mark[ing] a new aggressive move” for the administration, but thus far, has been met with trepidation by some in the scientific community (more on this in a future post).

Federal agency grades for their media and social media policies scoring how well they grant government scientists' freedom to speak to the media and the public.

Federal agency grades for their media and social media policies scoring how well they grant government scientists’ freedom to speak to the media and the public.

The administration’s actions this month follow a February memo from the White House Science Adviser John Holdren. The memo asked federal agencies to develop policies that increase access to federally funded research:

The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hereby directs each Federal agency with over $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures to develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.

This is all part of the broader Digital Government Strategy launched over a year ago. And together, this wave of action from the federal government is an important step toward better access to the science done at federal agencies.

Equally important as access to federal science is access to the scientists who do that work. In our recent report, Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, we asked federal agencies to better allow their scientists to speak freely to the media and to the public. Since then, we’ve seen improvement from several agencies (some within hours of our report release!) but many other agencies have yet to react. Agencies are limited by the time and resources needed to address this; however, many agencies seem to simply lack the will of leadership to prioritize this issue at their agency.

This week’s public meetings on access to government science trend in the right direction. Federal science agencies perform critical research to ensure that our food is safe, our medicine works, and our air and water are clean. The public should have access to the results of that work. I hope that this strong signal from the president that these issues are important can give agencies the push they need to open their science to the world and let the sunshine in.

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About the author: Gretchen Goldman is an analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. Her current work looks at political and corporate interference in science policy. She holds a PhD and MS in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a BS in atmospheric science from Cornell University. See Gretchen's full bio.

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