U fights to repeal public research legislation

Amy Olson

The University Senate is spearheading a nationwide effort to repeal a law requiring researchers who get federal grant money to supply research data to anyone who wants it.
Members of the University Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to oppose federal provisions passed last year requiring researchers to turn over information learned from government-funded projects.
“The potential for damage is quire large,” said Leonard Kuhi, Senate Research Committee chairman.
The provision is part of the 4,000-page Omnibus Budget Bill that Congress passed last fall. The amendment was tacked onto the budget bill with many other rider amendments. There was no debate on the additions because of congressional attention to the impeachment proceedings, said Fred Morrison, law professor and author of the University Senate resolution.
Under normal circumstances, many of the parts would have been considered as separate bills. But because Congress was preoccupied with the impending impeachment, few bills were passed during the session.
At the last minute, Congress created and passed the omnibus bill without debate to avoid a government shutdown for lack of a budget.
Only one-third of the resulting budget bill pertains to the budget, Morrison said; as a result, nobody found out about the provision until after Clinton signed the bill into law.
Morrison said the University resolution is intended to reinforce the faculty’s vigorous opposition to the provision and spur legislative efforts to repeal the provision.
Federal Relations Director Tom Etten told committee members in January that the long-term goal will be repealing the provision.
Several professional associations have taken a stance against it, said Mark Smith, associate director of governmental relations for the Association of American University Professors. But to his knowledge, no other university faculty senates have passed resolutions against the measure, he said.
At minimum, Kuhi said the Office of Planning and Analysis — which will handle the requests for information — needs to adopt rules to eliminate or reduce the adverse impact.
Those rules include adopting measures to protect confidentiality of human subjects and patients and preventing harassment of researchers. Also, institutions will need financial reimbursement for compliance costs; that is, paying someone to block names off of medical records in multiple places.
Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., has introduced a bill to amend the requirements to which researchers would be subjected.
But Kuhi said even amending the provision would not be enough if the responsibility to decide who gets access were left to the governmental agencies bestowing the grants.
The provision could have a detrimental effect on researchers’ access to data sources, said Judith Garrard, professor of health services research in the School of Public Health.
Garrard said administrators who control private sector databases, such as those in nursing homes and hospitals, might not allow researchers to have access to data because of fears that patient privacy rights would be compromised by public access.
The University’s policy on ethical treatment of human subjects requires researchers to protect the confidentiality of participants.
Researchers have already had to deal with harassment. Morrison cited a New York law firm involved in tobacco litigation, whose attorneys sought all the notes from a University tobacco study.
The ordeal was a long hassle for researchers and took away time from work, Morrison said.