It’s indeed a truism to say that changes in U.S. public policy happen slowly; entrenched interests fight against what they perceive to be radical changes, and most policymakers are reluctant to change things too quickly. As a result, most advances are incremental, with new policies building on existing ones, step by tiny step. However, over time, these tiny steps accumulate, and we look up to find that they have combined to produce meaningful progress and real change.
With its action today, the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) advanced the cause of public access to publicly funded research articles another crucial step. In a unanimous voice vote, the Committee approved S. 779, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act which now positions the legislation to be considered by the full Senate.
This marks the first time that a U.S. Senate Committee has acted on a government-wide policy ensuring public access to the results of publicly funded research and signals that there is deep support for the ideal that taxpayers have the right to access to the research that their tax dollars fund. This action continues the steady march towards enabling fast, barrier-free access to research articles that got its start with the establishment of a voluntary NIH policy in 2005, and slowly progressed with legislation shifting that policy to mandatory in 2008, again in 2010 with the America COMPETES Act and most recently with the 2013 White House OSTP Directive on public access.
Building on the framework from these past successful policies, the bipartisan-supported FASTR bill calls for federal agencies with extramural research budgets in excess of $100 million to establish consistent, permanent public access policies for articles reporting on their funded research. After weeks of discussion and debate, the bill was amended by HSGAC to ensure that those articles be made freely available to the public no later than 12 months after publication – and preferably sooner.
FASTR, like most proposed legislation, is far from perfect. Many would argue that a 12-month maximum embargo, or indeed, any embargo, is an unacceptable impediment and that these research articles should be made freely available without delay. They won’t get an argument from me; in fact, I completely agree. However, I have also seen firsthand that moving the needle on this issue from a system where publishers enjoyed unbounded, perpetual, exclusive, distribution privileges to one where articles are freely available on day one is simply not going to happen in one fell swoop.
It can, however, happen incrementally, and all of the evidence we have seen points to steady progress towards this goal. From voluntary to mandatory, from unlimited exclusive distribution privileges to those lasting no more than 12 months, to serious consideration of enabling full reuse rights, real and lasting changes are happening, year in, year out.
Today’s progress on FASTR is another step in this long march. Under the leadership of Senator Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Wyden (D-OR), FASTR provides the statutory framework needed codify the White House OSTP Directive, which was issued with the goal of accelerating scientific discovery and fueling innovation. While 13 federal agencies and departments have released their initial plans, the reality is that the OSTP Directive is not law, and can be easily overturned by a subsequent Administration. Should FASTR continue on course and be passed by both chambers of Congress, free, fair public access to research articles will become the law of the land – and not just the preference a President.
And of course we’re rooting for the success of FASTR not just because of the principles it embodies, but because of the promise it holds for creating opportunities for real progress. The ultimate passage of FASTR will open up access to a treasure trove of crucial information, and make it possible for anyone – a scientist, a student, an entrepreneur – to take that information and to use it to solve big problems, to build new businesses, and to enhance our collective understanding of the world around us.
The step that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee took today in passing FASTR out of committee might, at first glance, look like a small one. But just one glance over our shoulders at the past decade shows us how this step takes us closer towards our goal of a world where everyone is free to take this knowledge and to use it – for the public good.