Support improved accessibility of scientific research
In May of 2015, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and House representatives Mike Doyle (D-PA), Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) proposed the bipartisan Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act in Congress. Reported by committee in July of 2015, the goal of this legislation is to mandate public release of taxpayer-funded research. It would require that U.S. departments and agencies — which fund outside research through tax money — make results publicly available on the internet as soon as 12 months after they are published in a peer-reviewed journal. The FASTR bill promises to expand the public’s access to research, which would improve academic literacy and increase scientific engagement in nonacademic communities.
Currently there is a rift between scientific communities and the general populace due to what communities the works are published in and the jargon often used. Since scientific communities are most often tight knit and relatively small, work within the community is usually done less for the outside world and more for fellow scientists. Because the target audience consists of other scientists rather than anyone outside of the academic circle, the language used in scientific articles is much less accessible to the general public. This would make sense if this language was necessary to the understanding of the subject, but it is very rare that the material cannot be described in simpler terms. Rather, this happens mostly due to a lack of incentive; since scientists mainly care about other scientists understanding their work, and since the layman’s comprehension is not necessarily their main concern, they do not prioritize publishing in accessible language. This creates a self-propagating cycle: Because scientists tend to write in a language only those in the field understand, many people outside of the community do not ever have the opportunity to get engaged in the first place, and so they become increasingly disconnected from science.
Science is a massive component of society, serving as the method through which humans can meaningfully understand and interact with the world. When large portions of the population are left outside the field, they cannot interact with their surroundings to their full potential. More so, early disenfranchisement can discourage youth from exploring scientific fields, which can lead to a less-educated population and can decrease the number of future scientists.
FASTR doesn’t solve these problems entirely. Problems with heavy jargon and targeting will still exist, but the bill will be a step in the correct direction by starting to get rid of the structural issues that can block the general population from accessing scientific work in the first place. If the work is available for free on the internet, that means that anyone — from a fourth grader doing a science project to a college student working on a paper — can access the information. Taking this a step further, even if people do not completely understand what the papers say, increasing cost-efficient availability means that it is likely that other sources might have picked up the work and written commentary on it. The resulting increase in discourse surrounding works of science will widen the number of people who get to learn about the information.
The bill essentially creates a porous membrane through which information can pass — something it could not do as easily before. FASTR connects two isolated groups of individuals and gives them something to share. Aside from all of the benefits of engaging those previously not involved with science, this bridge between the two groups may make it more likely that corporations will invest in research, as they see more of the populace being drawn into it and understanding it more. A more public discussion about science and its importance in society means the chance to get more groups involved.
The main contention that often is brought up against this bill has to do with the value of intellectual property and the effect this would have on patents. The current system operates in such a manner that the results accrued using government funding become the intellectual property of the scientist or group that had worked on it. This sounds fine — until the realization hits you that patents just allow scientists and other producers to profit from knowledge that should be easily accessible for everyone. Before someone can use patented research to continue with their own project, they must prepare to pay money to the scientist who discovered the first building block.
No one can truly own intellectual property, and the lines between who has which patents is incredibly arbitrary. When it comes to scientific research, it is often the case that multiple scientists are working in the same field. Every research project becomes a matter of which scientist can publish and claim ownership of the results first. Though this is the current world in which we live, it is not the world that is ideal. In a perfect world, research and scientific data would be shared not only with the public but also with other scientists. Some may say that it is this push for ownership that drives scientists to work at discoveries, but it is unlikely that this would actually make a meaningful difference in terms of productivity, considering that scientists very rarely go into science for the fame and are more often motivated by a love of science and discovery.
On the other hand, if scientists are not constantly afraid of maintaining or gaining ownership of their research, they are much more likely to work with other scientists. This increases the productivity of science in general; people are more likely to get quicker and more analytical results when multiple people work together on projects.
Though this bill would not get rid of patents, it does help to make it more difficult for larger corporations and research conglomerates to make money off of the patents once they are mandated to release the findings. This is even more justified when you remember that they are funded by taxpayer money — and consequently, are a direct investment of the general populace.