The scientific research community supports the idea of intellectual honesty. Business has always wanted to see and double-check the science that underlies important federal rules. And some in Congress think everyone should have access to scientific data collected with taxpayer dollars.
This sharing of information is known as "transparency," and it sounds as though it might be a hard thing to argue against. But as the Office of Management and Budget works on a rule that would allow anyone to take a peek at the scientific calculations that go into devising thousands of federal rules and policies, the scientific, university and medical communities are scrambling to limit broad access to this data.
What disturbs them is that the law giving rise to the OMB rule allows everyone to use the Freedom of Information Act to get at the scientific data in studies that are the underpinnings of highly controversial rules. Currently, agencies that award federal research grants can request the data from those who receive grants, but they seldom do.
The debate between the business community, which thinks it has the right to know about the science that goes into rules that it must comply with, and the researchers who want their work protected from prying eyes was set off by a 1997 Environmental Protection Agency proposal to tighten air-pollution rules at considerable cost to industry.
After the EPA rule change was proposed, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) pressed the agency for the Harvard University study that helped it draw its conclusions about the need for a new air-quality rule. But EPA refused to request the data for Shelby.
"What the heck? Can you imagine the arrogance?" Shelby said, who responded with the disclosure legislation.
Critics argue that under Shelby's law, anyone wanting to peer into the work of researchers could have a field day, since 60 percent of the scientific research conducted at colleges and universities is funded by the federal government.
Researchers have a long list of worries. They predict that confidentiality agreements with research subjects would be breached, companies' proprietary information could fall into the hands of competitors, and funding relationships between universities and private industry would be jeopardized.
"We agree research data should be made available, subject to the protection of sensitive research data that, if disclosed, would harm the conduct of science," said George Leventhal, senior federal relations officer for the Association of American Universities. "Using the FOIA is the wrong way to do it."
Leventhal said the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and semiconductor industries, which have partnerships with universities, also feel their proprietary research would be in peril.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, for example, wants OMB to draw the rule narrowly, making sure that it would not raise privacy concerns or jeopardize companies' intellectual-property rights.
In an effort to delay the rule, opponents are supporting an amendment that Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) plans to tack onto an appropriations bill that would call for a year-long study to look at the potential "unintended consequences" of the law.
Critics of the law have been pointing out the pitfalls to their representatives in Congress. One sociologist who works with rape victims predicted that she would lose access to her subjects if they feared their names or stories would one day become public.
Shelby said there are safeguards in the current Freedom of Information Act that protect the privacy of patients, trade secrets and other sensitive information.
"FOIA is a tried and tested mechanism for making information available to the public," Shelby said in a talk he gave Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies. He said the new OMB rule would "empower the people to have access to the data."
He chided the scientific community for appearing "to view federal funding as an entitlement" and for assuming the public is "too stupid to understand their research" and likely to misuse it.
William Kovacs, vice president of environment and regulatory affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said universities and hospitals are conducting "a complete campaign of misinformation," trying to convince members of Congress that sensitive information, like the names of AIDS patients, would be released.
Kovacs said the chamber supports a narrow interpretation of the law that would require the release only of data that is used to make a policy or rule, not the research that is done for other government purposes.
Others in the research and regulatory arenas are looking for a middle ground.
Robert Hahn, director of the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, and Linda Cohen, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine, suggest tailoring access to the documents. They believe there should be access to the information that results in regulations that have significant economic impact -- such as the EPA's 1997 ozone and particulate matter standard, which would make current air-pollution rules more stringent -- and an independent agency should be created to replicate the results of research before any standard becomes final.
"Give the data to a completely disinterested party and see if they can replicate the results," said Randall Lutter, former OMB economist and an AEI resident scholar.