Date: April 10, 1997
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Associate
Becky Habel, Media Relations Assistant
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Open Exchange of Scientific Data
Should be Protected From Restrictive Policies

WASHINGTON -- Policy-makers worldwide should treat the results of research funded with tax dollars as a public good and not allow the flow of scientific data to be restricted, says a report* by a committee of the National Research Council. Recently proposed changes to laws that protect intellectual property could go too far and jeopardize full and open exchange of the research data that fuel today's advances in science and technology.

Scientists and educators routinely share publicly funded research data in order to perform basic research and to speed improvements in medical treatments, food production, communications, and other areas. Proposed new laws for protecting the contents of databases, however, ignore the traditional "fair use" exceptions that make this collaboration possible. "Fair use" exceptions enable scientists and educators to use copyrighted materials -- such as published research papers -- for free or at reduced costs, if the information is used for research, teaching, or other specific purposes.

"Science is a cumulative process, and laws that inhibit the flow of science information by making it unaffordable would force cutbacks in research as well as significantly slow our progress in science and technology," said committee chair R. Stephen Berry, professor of chemistry and the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. "These laws also are flawed from an economic point of view because of the possibility that unrestricted monopolies may result, particularly by people who have no direct concern for the public benefits of science."

The proposed laws would enable database vendors to charge scientists and educators at commercial rates for access and even, in some cases, to maintain a monopoly on publicly funded research data. Such restrictions could greatly inhibit collaborative scientific research projects that depend on constantly updated information, the committee said. Limiting access to data would be especially damaging to sciences concerned with international issues such as global change and the environment, the prevention and treatment of diseases, and biodiversity. Each of these research areas requires the open exchange of globally compatible data among scientists in both rich and poor nations.

Last year the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an intergovernmental organization affiliated with the United Nations that promotes the protection of intellectual property, introduced a draft treaty on databases and intellectual property at a diplomatic conference. Although the treaty was rejected, the organization may propose a new version later this year without "fair use" exceptions for scientists and educators. If WIPO were to endorse such a treaty, it would establish new international norms that in turn would obligate the United States and other signatory countries to amend their own intellectual property laws, the report says.

The Commission of the European Communities (CEC), which sets economic policies for its member states, has already adopted an intellectual property directive that fails to provide adequate exceptions for researchers and educators. CEC passed the European Directive on Databases in February 1996. U.S. legislators introduced a similarly restrictive bill in the House of Representatives in May 1996.

In an effort to point out the problems that such a treaty could cause for scientists, the National Research Council released a draft of Chapter 5 of the committee's report last November.

Public and Private Rights

The traditional balance of private and public rights that once dominated intellectual property laws is breaking down in the computer age, the committee explained. In the United States, for example, patent and copyright systems have long protected technological inventions, literature, and artistic works by outlawing their reproduction without permission from the patent or copyright holder, and payment of the holder's required fees. Scientists, educators, and others working for the public good, however, have been allowed unrestricted access to copyrighted information for specific purposes.

Today information increasingly is stored and distributed via computer databases that are not covered by copyright laws. Unscrupulous users can copy and widely distribute computer information without adequately compensating or crediting data providers.

Computer database vendors are justified in seeking protection for their investments, the report says. But policy-makers must insist on maintaining exceptions for scientists, educators, and others working in the public interest to ensure they are not priced out of the data and information they need for tomorrow's breakthroughs. Likewise, all scientists conducting publicly funded research should make their data readily available, the committee said. If a researcher has a reason to keep information proprietary, scientific disciplines should establish time limits for such uses. To ensure compliance, agencies that fund research should monitor the projects they support.

Re-evaluate Privatization Efforts

Privatization is another trend that could affect future access to research findings, the committee said. The United States and many other nations distribute publicly funded scientific data as a government service. In this era of fiscal belt-tightening, however, some governments have begun to sell scientific data on a commercial basis and to privatize distribution. From 1985 to 1992, for example, the United States' contract with the Earth Observing Satellite (EOSAT) Co., a joint venture of Hughes Electronics Co. and RCA Inc., gave EOSAT monopoly control over the distribution of images captured by Landsat satellites. Scientists subsequently persuaded Congress that the resulting cost increases made the data unaffordable for environmental research, and the law was changed.

Governments should not remove themselves as primary distributors of the data from research they fund without ensuring that adequate safeguards exist to prevent monopoly control and restricted access, the committee said. Moreover, governments should not consider privatizing data distribution services unless the data are used by a community able to support competing distributors, can be sold profitably to customers outside the research community, and will remain available to scientific users at low prices.

Improve Access

As computers and network access become more affordable, national and international organizations concerned with the flow of scientific data across borders should help less-developed nations acquire electronic network services, computers, and software, the committee said. Efforts to expand computer network access in poor countries will benefit all nations because scientists throughout the world have valuable information to share.

Alternatives to the Internet should be explored, the committee said, to lay the groundwork for future improvements in worldwide data access. Given the increasing use of the Internet for commercial and entertainment activities, there are few incentives for Internet developers to focus on capabilities for sharing scientific data. Science societies and the Internet Engineering Task Force -- an international group of network operators, designers, researchers, and vendors -- should study the situation and consider creating separate, dedicated networks for sharing scientific data, similar to those already in use for seismology and meteorology.

The Research Council report was initiated at the request of the U.S. National Committee for CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology), an interdisciplinary committee of the International Council of Scientific Unions. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Library of Medicine, the Defense Technical Information Center, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

*Pre-publication copies of Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $45.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain pre-publication copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).