For the latest salvo in the fight to expand conflict-of-interest management at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) sent NIH Director Francis Collins a letter urging him to require public disclosure of conflicts of interest by NIH grantees (H/T ScienceInsider). They are concerned that even though the agency sought public comment on revisions to the policy, that the rule the agency will put forward will represent no substantive change in policy.
I’m not privy to whatever has lead POGO to that conclusion, so I don’t know if their concerns are warranted or not. I do know that the agency has had trouble with managing grantee conflicts of interest, as described in the letter and in my postings on the subject. Given the extra steps the agency is taking to make sure the stem cell lines it supports have been obtained ethically, it would be a real puzzler for them to not pursue a heightened ethical bar in this area. I’m not saying it won’t happen, just that it will trigger a lot of cognitive dissonance should it happen.
Congressional legislation on open access has usually focused on federally funded research. Legislation introduced yesterday by Representative Steve Israel (D-New York) focuses on executive branch agency public information. The Public Online Information Act (currently online only at the Sunlight Foundation‘s website) would require executive branch agencies (including independent regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission) to establish rules for making publicly available government information available on the Internet. The bill would also establish an advisory committee to provide non-binding recommendations for all three branches about making public information available on the internet.
Besides putting public information on the web, the agencies would have to publish online a comprehensive list of all records made publicly available. This list would be searchable and available in a machine-readable format. Internet disclosure will be required three years after enactment of the bill, though there are no restrictions from acting sooner. The Open Government Directive doesn’t directly address public information in this way, but it’s plausible that some agencies may be thinking about doing this already, or will soon with this bill being introduced.
The intended goal of this bill would be to make data currently available through government reading rooms and other physical repositories also available online. In other words, this does not expand the scope of information that agencies must make available to the public, but makes it easier for the public to get to that information. This should not be cause for disappointment, because if the only way you can get public information is to go to a room in a federal building between 9 an 3 on alternate Wednesdays, how publicly available is it?