It is hard for politicians to do anything that would shock me but I have to say that John Conyers, a US Congressman, has done it. In the process, he has taught us a lot about how far we have to go, all over the world, before we get our science policy right. Since science and technology are major engines of growth, that is a point of pressing interest for governments everywhere.
Rep. Conyers has introduced a bill, misleadingly called the ”Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” that would eviscerate public access to taxpayer funded research. The bill is so badly drafted that it would also wreak havoc on federal information policy more generally. It is supported by the commercial science publishers, but opposed by a remarkable set of groups -- ranging from the American Research Libraries, to 33 Nobel Prize Winners, to a coalition of patients’ rights organizations. (One of its many negative effects would be effectively to forbid the the US National Institutes of Health from allowing the taxpayers who have paid for medical research actually to read the results for free, hurting not only the progress of science, but informed medical decisions by patients and their families.)
As a copyright professor, I have to say the bill is a nightmare. For reasons I won’t bore you with, its limitations on Federal agencies are completely unworkable. And as a scholar who writes about innovation, I have to say that it flies in the face of decades of research which shows the extraordinary multiplier effect of free access to information on the speed of scientific development. But speaking as a human being, I just have to wonder what could be going through a politician’s head at a moment like this. How did the dialogue go?
Staff: ”Hey. Here is a Bill that 33 Nobel prize winners say will dramatically harm science. The current and former heads of NIH agree.”
Representative: ”What do they know about science! Let’s endorse it.”
Staff: ”A group of legal scholars says that it will mess up copyright law and undercut a central tenet of Federal information policy.”
Representative: ”Pshaw. We got our copyright opinion directly from the commercial publishers. They say it will be great! Why would they lie?”
Staff: ”And the patients’ rights groups say it will tragically limit patients’ access to medical studies that their own tax dollars have funded, and slow down research that could provide a cure more quickly.”
Representative: ”Whiners. Since when have sick people had anything useful to teach us about medical research?”
Staff: ”There is empirical evidence that requiring open access after a reasonable delay has not in fact resulted in cancellation of subscriptions to commercial journals. In fact in some cases, circulation has increased.”
Representative: ”Look, I am a politician. I can’t be expected to look at actual evidence....We’re done here. I can’t worry about this penny ante stuff. I need to be thinking about how to revitalize the American economy....”
Staff: ”But science and technology is one of our single biggest hopes for growth and this is going to really hurt science....”
Even if this bill dies the death it so richly deserves, the very fact we are arguing about it indicates how far we have to go in our debates over science policy....
Peter Suber at 2/24/2009 10:17:00 AM.
The open access movement:
Putting peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly literature
on the internet. Making it available free of charge and
free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Removing the barriers to serious research.