Opinion Pieces

Give The Public What It Pays For: Scientific Research

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Forbes, September 6, 2016 | comments
When you pay for something, you expect to receive it. Whether a physical good or a service, there is the rightful expectation that you will receive something in exchange for your money. The same should be true for scientific research. Americans, however, are being forced to pay double for access.

Technology and information sharing have put us on the brink of a new era of scientific breakthroughs. Citizen scientists can use unfettered access to federally-funded research to innovate and create new ideas that grow our economy and improve the lives of Americans. All citizens benefit when their tax dollars are used to craft life-changing ideas rather than scientific articles that go unseen behind pay walls and restricted access.

Currently, scholarly journals count on taxpayers to foot the bill for research on the frontend and for access to the results on the backend. While the federal government spends more than $100 billion annually on research and development, it denies adequate access to the taxpayers who fund it. Enhanced public access will prevent this “double charge” and will lead to less frivolous taxpayer spending on duplicative research, foster innovation, and increase scientific advances that keep America on the cutting edge of science and technology.

The idea of everyday citizens making scientific breakthroughs is not abstract. When he was a high school student, Jack Andraka was affected by the loss of a friend to pancreatic cancer. In the wake of that loss, he wanted to research the disease. By utilizing research articles based on federally-funded research, Jack created a new, accurate and inexpensive diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer.

The Internet is a useful tool in scientific endeavors. We’ve seen the value in linking the world community through a free and open Internet, allowing imaginative ideas to incubate and develop, eventually transforming into the type of innovative technologies that have come to define the Information Age. The tech industry has made it clear that we must avoid putting undue restrictions on the Internet. Instead, we should find ways to free the Internet from government restraints. It is imperative that this principle apply to scientific research as well.

In 2011, Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer and research fellow at Harvard University, downloaded academic journal articles through MIT’s computer network. He was arrested and later indicted on federal charges of wire and computer fraud, and unlawfully obtaining information from and damaging a protected computer. Nine additional felony charges were later added. Before he began his prison sentence, he committed suicide.

Following his death, several members of the House Judiciary Committee questioned the government’s handling of the case, and introduced Aaron’s Law. This bill excludes terms of service violations from the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and from the wire fraud statute.

While Aaron’s Law addressed the how, the Public Access to Public Science (PAPS) Act addresses the why. Why did Aaron hack into computers at MIT? He was passionate about open access.

The PAPS Act is a pro-taxpayer, pro-science, pro-information sharing bill–a bipartisan bill to ensure public access to published materials concerning scientific research and development activities funded by federal science agencies.

Partisan gridlock often defines Washington, but the PAPS Act is a collaborative effort that strikes a balance between enabling for-profit publishers and scientific societies to continue to host high-quality publications and allowing the public to access work funded by federal tax dollars.

It is past time we embrace a public access policy for scientific research and give the public what it pays for. The PAPS Act provides Americans access to the results of their investment, helping to spur curiosity, ingenuity and innovation in science and technology industries.

View this piece online here.
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Tags: Education