About Those Government Reports That Sit On A Shelf

Today (early Thursday UK time) Sense About Science, a UK charity focused on public access to and understanding of scientific evidence, released a report it commissioned about UK government-commissioned research (H/T ScienceInsider).  The report was also supported by the JRSST Charitable Trust.

The focus of the report is not on scientific research funded by the UK government in general, but on studies commissioned on research that would inform policy.  After press reports claiming delay or suppression of research that could be politically awkward, Sense About Science asked Sir Stephen Sedley a former judge in the Court of Appeal, to conduct an inquiry.

There are to big problems, and both seem to me to be something that any country’s government – whether well-intentioned or negligent – could have.  The main problem for me is that the UK government does a poor job tracking and making accessible the research for policy it does commission.  Only 4 of the 24 UK government departments have a research database for this kind of report, and 11 departments were unable to provide a list of research they had commissioned.

Sir Stephen noted that the rules governing the publication of this research is similarly inconsistent across departments and relatively susceptible to manipulation so that commissioned research could easily be gathering dust on office shelves.  He recommends that there be a central government register for this research, and that it be accessible to the public.  Expect Sense About Science to make this a key issue moving forward.

I think this would be an excellent idea for the U.S. to follow.  I do not think that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) would be a good place for this register, primarily because the proposed register is for all agencies, and not just those with which the OSTP has a long-standing relationship.  I think it would be better suited for the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, or a comparable agency with cross-government responsibilities and a history of collecting information and making it available for public review and analysis.

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