The government has an affirmative responsibility to provide certain vital information to the public. An explicit part of the mission of government agencies like the FDA and the EPA is to ensure public access to accurate, science-based information about food, medicine and the environment. The government’s duty is miscarried when it fails to study an important subject or to make relevant findings available to the public.
Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (2010)
HR 801, The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act is a bill sponsored by Minnesota Congressman, John Conyers. The bill, which is currently in committee, would have wide reaching effects on the public’s ability to access data from government funded scientific research. Currently, all research funded by the National Institute of Health must be made publicly available—this amendment to the current copyright code would put an end to this policy, and seriously curtail public access to research that their tax dollars helped to fund.
According to its mission statement, the FDA is responsible for “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of human and veterinary drugs, vaccines and other biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply … and helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health.” (emphasis added)
While, the pharmaceutical industry has an interest in keeping certain information secret in order to protect their trade secrets, the public and the science community, have an interest in free and open access to data on new and current drugs to assure scientific integrity and facilitate research. These contradictory interests come to a head at the FDA.
Wyeth v. Levine W.S. (2009)
Since the FDA’s limited resources don’t allow it to closely monitor drug companies, the agency is forced to rely on industry self-reporting of information that would hurt sales of their drugs. This system has obvious flaws in expecting corporate officials to act against their own interests; the fox can’t be trusted to guard the chicken coop. However, in March 2009 the Supreme Court ruled in Wyeth v. Levine that Diana Levine could sue the pharmaceutical company Wyeth for risks Wyeth knew but did not disclose, giving patients some protection against suppression of negative information about drugs.
Report concludes FDA practices support supression of information (2006)
A 2006 report by Public Citizen concluded that the FDA was facilitating industry suppression through its processes and procedures. Access to data is limited and discussion is skewed on potential new drugs. According to the report, FDA restrictions on open discourse take various forms, including “selective publication of favorable results, gag orders on corporate-funded research, and misleading presentations of data.” Although industry often fails to provide negative research to the FDA, the report found that even when the FDA received data from companies it still failed to release the information to the public.
An example from the report is the publication of data on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) in children. The report notes that while published studies touted the positive effects of these drugs, several negative studies provided to the FDA regarding the increased risk of suicidal ideation in children were not published. Examples such as these underscore the fact that FDA procedures frequently result in less transparency and accountability and in turn limit open discourse.
According to its mission statement, part of “EPA's purpose is to ensure that … all parts of society — communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments — have access to accurate information sufficient to effectively participate in managing human health and environmental risks.”
Failure to monitor dumping of Pharmaceutical Ingredients (2009)
One example of where the EPA has fallen short in its duties to collect and disseminate vital information is the regulation of pharmaceutical ingredients. According to an Associated Press investigation, at least 271 million pounds of pharmaceuticals have been dumped into waterways that act as sources of drinking water. The article notes that federal and industry officials are saying they don’t know the extent that pharmaceuticals are released by manufacturers because no one tracks them. This neglectful oversight keeps critical information about the safety of drinking water from the public. The public has a right to know about possible contaminations and relies on the EPA to monitor and dispense data about these issues.
Obama administration eliminates possibility of good-faith evaluation of Yucca Mountain (2009)
It is unclear whether or not Yucca Mountain is a good site for a nuclear waste repository. That question won’t be answered through scientific evaluation however. Instead it will be answered by budgetary censorship. By cutting the budget for the Yucca Mountain project – which is strongly opposed in its home state of Nevada – the Obama Administration and not regulatory agencies in relevant fields determined the fate of the project. According to the New York Times, the government has already spent more than two decades and almost $10 billion to get the site ready for licensing hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Times argues that it would be foolish to not complete the process with a good-faith evaluation. At the least, the licensing process could provide useful knowledge about nuclear waste disposal. Instead the Obama Administration has effectively closed the debate on the topic – at least as it relates to Yucca Mountain.
W.S. The Closure of EPA libraries (March 2008).
As reported in “Political Science: a Report on Science and Censorship,” in order to adjust to drastic funding cuts proposed by the White House, the EPA closed several of its 26 regional research libraries which, for many independent and EPA researchers alike, are the only source for crucial data on toxic threats to the environment, like superfund sites. A March 13, 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reiterated that the closures were both harmful for EPA’s mission and for the public, who, as a result, have questionable access to important scientific information.
In response to public concern and the findings of the GAO, the closed EPA libraries were finally re-opened in September of 2008. There are, however, lingering questions including whether the newly re-opened libraries actually contain the same breadth of information and resources as they did prior to the closures.
W.S. Relaxing reporting requirements for chemicals used, stored or released by industry (2007)
Under pressure from the White House Office of Management and Budget, the EPA eased chemical reporting requirements for their Toxics Release Inventory Program. New York Attorney General, Andrew M. Cuomo, who led a coalition of 12 states in a lawsuit against the EPA (to have the reporting requirements restored), summarized the effect of the change as “rob[bing] New Yorkers—and people across the country—of their right to know about toxic dangers in their own backyards.”
See also: “Our Right-to-Know About Toxic Pollution is Under Attack” (2006)