Bipartisan spending bill promotes open access, repeals sequestration

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Nearly two weeks before his State of the Union address promising to reinvest in education and research, President Barack Obama quietly signed such promises into law through a spending bill outlining the 2014 federal budget.

The omnibus bill, passed by Congress in mid-January, officially withdraws what would have been a second round of cuts mandated by last year’s sequester — the budget plan that drained billions of dollars from government programs and, in turn, $370 million from the University of California’s research pool. In another triumph for research culture, the bill also calls for free public access to federally funded research, in line with the universitywide open access policy for researchers the Academic Senate passed last year.

But the funds are still below presequestration levels, according to UC spokesperson Chris Harrington.

The National Institutes of Health, for example — which, when combined with the National Science Foundation, contributes about two-thirds of UC Berkeley’s research funding — has received an additional $1 billion. While an improvement, this is still $1 billion short of the $30.9 billion it was allocated in fiscal year 2012, Harrington said.

“People are having to downsize because they still can’t get as much money,” said campus biology professor and 2013 Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman.

Michael Eisen, a campus biology professor and researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said research is still suffering not only because funds have not been fully restored but also because science has simultaneously become more expensive to conduct.

“Even if the total dollar value remains the same, your ability to get funded is weaker,” he said. “It’s driving people out of science.”

Still, Patrick Schlesinger, assistant vice chancellor of research at UC Berkeley, expects the bill to be a positive development for the campus.

Also commended but not without its faults is the bill’s stipulation that agencies under the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education receiving at least $100 million in funding provide free online access to publications. The research articles must be made public within 12 months of publication.

The bill expands upon the university’s open access policy that went into effect in November. But Eisen criticized the policy, calling it “effectively useless” because researchers could still fall prey to pressure from journals and opt out of the policy.

Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, explained that before this legislation, research journals would often prohibit authors from making their research public as a condition of publication.

“It’s not that individual authors are going to do that willy-nilly,” Eisen said. “It’s that (journals) can say we will not publish your paper if you opt out of this provision. What you end up with is a system that looks good on paper but within practice has no effect.”

In that sense, Eisen said, the bill is an improvement.

“It’s taken a long time to take what really amounts to small steps,” said Schekman, who is the editor in chief of eLife, an open access journal.

Schekman explained most opponents of open access initiatives are for-profit journals that feel open access policies put their commercial value in jeopardy.

He said the grace period of sorts outlined in the bill is a compromise between open access advocates and commercially based journals but that it is an “inadequate” compromise. Instead of being “held behind a commercial firewall,” he said, research should be published online immediately.

“That’s what open access really means,” he said. “It doesn’t mean keeping it a secret for a year.”

Eisen agreed, calling the current publishing scheme a “crazy, archaic model” that can only be combated with stronger legislation.

“I’m glad this happened,” Eisen said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be some watershed moment.”

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.