In April President Obama signed into law the STOCK (Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge) Act, which amended various ethics and disclosure laws for members of Congress and their staffs. The law was prompted by a 60 Minutes report that shined a bright enough light onto what essentially amounted to legal insider trading by various government officials.
Yesterday word broke that some scientists aren’t keen on the law. Specifically, the Assembly of Scientists, which appears to be a union and/or professional association for some National Institutes of Health researchers, has objected to changes in the disclosure requirements that affect not just members of Congress, but career federal employees. The Assembly argues that the previous disclosure requirements, which restricted financial holdings that could pose conflicts of interest, are sufficient. The Assembly is also opposed to online disclosure of the information. They consider the previous procedure – where the public could contact the relevant agency to ask for a copy of the specific employee’s disclosure form – as sufficient. The association goes so far as to suggest online disclosure would expose the subjects to the risk of harm and/or fraud. At least one other federal employee association has expressed similar concerns.
This is not the first time this year that U.S. scientists have expressed positions that can be taken as anti-transparency. There is a bill in Congress called the GRANT (Grant Reform and New Transparency) Act that is intended to improve reporting and transparency for all federal grants – including research grants. The bill passed out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in May, but has not been considered on the House floor.
The objections from scientific societies relate to the provisions requiring that all funded proposals and reviewers be posted online. While the intent behind these provisions is to make it harder to conceal possible favoritism in the awarding of federal funds (of any kind handled through grants), the scientific societies are concerned that the disclosure puts the intellectual property within the proposals at risk.
With my experience with grant proposals limited to small amounts and consistent failure, I have no idea how prevalent the disclosure of intellectual property is in research grant proposals. If patented, copyright, or trade secret information is disclosed, I can see the point, but otherwise I’m not persuaded that this is a significant problem.
The slightly more persuasive argument is that the disclosure of reviewers could be a disincentive for people to participate in peer review. Now the bill, as currently written, requires disclosure of all reviewers in a grant program for the six months prior to the award of a particular grant. It is not necessarily a given (at least it isn’t to me) that the reviewers would be linked to individual grants, or to their comments for the specific grants. Also, because the disclosure requirement is connected to awarded grants, names of reviewers would not be connected to grant (or to the review comments) applications that were not funded. I suppose there could be research fields so small that it would be hard for researchers not to know the people who would review their applications, but I think that would be a problem regardless of whether the names of reviewers were disclosed or not.
The problem of optics in these two examples is that scientists appear to be supporting positions that would foster corruption and otherwise hide their activities from the public. Putting aside the inherent transparency of the open access movements in scientific research, the bills scientists are resisting are meant to improve the perception of government and its activities, including research, in the eyes of the public. Without a more careful explanation of their objections, and perhaps a better effort to advance suggestions for changes that could accommodate both sides, there is a non-trivial risk to research funding. If scientists are not seen as being properly transparent, government funders could – rightfully – be reluctant to continue funding their research.