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Transcipt of the PBS Series "TechnoPolitics"

The Data Access topic is indeed becoming one of considerable debate. Consider the following transcript from a recent edition of the PBS program TechnoPolitics (March 13, 1999, 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.), in which key players in the Data Access debate participated. Participants included: John Merline (former Washington Bureau Chief, Investor's Business Daily), Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Representative George Brown (D-CA).

March 13, 1999
11:30 AM - 12:00 PM (ET)

Jim Glassman, host: Two years ago, "TechnoPolitics" brought you a story we called The Case of the Missing Data. The Environmental Protection Agency had just drafted strict new air pollution guidelines, regulations some said could cost tens of billions of dollars to implement. EPA Director Carol Browner announced that new research from Harvard University had forced her agency to act. Fine, said skeptics, ourselves included; let's see the data. Browner refused to make them public. So did the Harvard researchers, scientists whose work had been funded by U.S. taxpayers. John Merline was, at the time, Washington bureau chief of Investor's Business Daily.

What they're saying is there's enough evidence. But does it seem that there's something else behind this, maybe the data aren't any good or what?

John Merline (Former Washington Bureau Chief, Investor's Business Daily): I think - my own opinion - and it's just my own opinion - is that the EPA is very worried that they took a step beyond what was justified by available information, and that they're very reluctant to do anything that will undermine these new standards. There's a lot people now who are very skeptical about what the EPA has done, including people in the White House and many other independent science researchers.

Glassman: John Gibbons, the science advisor to the president, is. . .

Merline: That's right.

Glassman: Is he skeptical of these data, or is he just. . . ?

Merline: Yeah, I mean, he - well, he's pointing out that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of evidence to back up the new standards.

Glassman: By the time outside researchers had a chance to peer review Harvard's research, in other words, the new regulations were already on the books. More than a few politicians smelled a rat. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama was one.

Senator Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama): What caught my interest was the EPA Administrator, Carol Browner, would not furnish the basic study, or the underlying study, dealing with some - I believe it was air quality standards or something that Harvard was doing. And I said, you mean you're not going to furnish this to the Committee on Appropriations that we fund this? And we didn't get the information. Any information that will affect policy decisions, that will affect economic decisions, that's based on basic scientific research ought to be based on good science - nothing else, nothing less, because it could affect thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people's jobs.

Glassman: Shelby did not forget The senator added a provision to last year's omnibus spending bill that will force publicly financed researchers to open their books to the public. The White House Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, is already drafting guidelines to comply with Shelby's amendment. Government-funded research will now be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Not so fast, says Congressman George Brown, long-time member and former chairman of the House Science Committee.

Representative George Brown (Democrat, California): To just cite to you the way the bill was passed: It was defeated in a power of Congress; it was put onto last year's omnibus appropriation bill - four thousand pages financing two-thirds of the government - with no debate, no discussion, no knowledge of what the effects would be. None of the impacted parties were consulted about it.

The process is flawed to begin with. The OMB was told to modify this particular circular which deals with access to data produced by government-funded research or contracts. And they are in the process of making up rules to implement it. They don't know how to make this thing work. Now if the process is flawed and OMB is being told to do something that they don't know how to do, we think it would be better if we pulled back and had some hearings on that.

Glassman: Not surprisingly, most scientists side with Brown. They don't welcome the idea that lawyers and journalists may soon be poking around their labs.

Brown: Now the scientists have different points of view. In the biological sciences, where they're doing a lot of health research involving patients who have particular conditions, they're trying to protect the patients. And they don't see any particular reason why the confidential data about the patients and their conditions have to be revealed to anybody who wants to ask for it. And others have a different point of view. There are a lot of environmental groups, for example, who think that EPA is being unnecessarily harassed by major corporations who have something to gain from it. And as they see that possibility, they're becoming more involved in this picture.

Shelby: No, I don't think it would do any of these things. The objective is not to harm anybody, is not to put impediments in the way of ideas or scientific research, but to bring forth the research out to the public who pays for it, where it will be defended or replicated. I see why some people wouldn't want to defend something because a lot of it doesn't make any sense.

Glassman: Congressman Brown has submitted his own bill, one that would cut off Senator Shelby's rule and stop the OMB in its tracks. Brown wants to start from scratch, to hold new hearings. It's an important technopolitical question for the new Congress.

Brown: Well, Senator Shelby is an honorable man, and outstanding member of the Senate. His introduction of this language in an appropriations bill during the conference process is just one of those little things that senators can do. They all do it. So I don't fault him for this. I'd like to sit down and reason with him over whether that was the best way to do it, but I've found that most senators don't reason very well with a lowly House member. So we have to pass a bill.

Shelby: What we do in the Senate has to be reconciled with the House. What the House does has to be reconciled with the Senate version. And that's why we have conferences and that's why we agree on a legislation, just like the House agreed on the legislation dealing with the Freedom of Information Act on scientific investigations.