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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Science and Congress

Take a few minutes away from politics and read this fascinating article! One would think that Congress would want to have good solid scientific advice and not have to rely on think tanks or the Executive Branch agencies for an understanding of complex scientific issues. Well, in 1972 Congress passed and President Nixon signed a bill that set up the The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to do just that. Twenty years later, Congress withdrew all funding for the OTA and has never given it a penny since. (Okay. politics is involved…. Sorry.)

Why did this happen? What are the arguments for and against? What lessons can we learn about agencies just being denied funding? Read on!

And don’t forget to visit the collection of OTA documents at the UNT CyberCemetery!

Yosemite, fire, the legacy of John Muir and other Thanksgiving thoughts

I just ran across this Scientific American‘s Primate Diaries blog post, “Fire Over Ahwahnee: John Muir and the Decline of Yosemite” by Eric Michael Johnson. Anyone who’s read Charles Mann’s 1491 (great read btw!) knows that the indigenous peoples of the Americas from the forests of New England to the Amazon, rather than living in pristine wilderness, profoundly shaped their environments through techniques like cultivation and controlled burning. But Muir, often seen as the father of environmental conservation, actually did much harm to the Yosemite valley that he loved so much. Johnson writes eloquently about and makes connections between Muir, the lost history of violence and ignorant racism against native peoples and the issue of fire in Yosemite, and links to several scientific journal articles about fire as well as a fascinating USGS report “Status of the Sierra Nevada: The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project”.

It’s not that Muir didn’t encounter native peoples in his travels. He did, but he found them to be “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.” For a wilderness as pure as his holy Yosemite “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.” But, ironically, these “strange creatures” as Muir described them were the ones responsible for many of the features that gave Yosemite Valley its park-like appearance, the “landscape gardens” that Muir so valued. It is this forgotten legacy that has undermined many of the successes in the U.S. and even the global conservation movement today, one that traces directly back to John Savage and John Muir and the first protected wilderness site that later became the model followed around the world.

It wasn’t only Muir who was struck by the ordered beauty of Yosemite Valley. Lafayette Bunnell, the New York physician who accompanied Savage on his exploits in 1851, recalled that “the valley at the time of discovery presented the appearance of a well kept park.” Likewise, Galen Clark who was the state guardian of the Yosemite Grant after it was ceded to California, remembered similar conditions when he first visited in 1855. “At the time,” Clark wrote, “there was no undergrowth of young trees to obstruct clear open views in any part of the valley from one side of the Merced River across to the base of the opposite wall.”

However, these conditions didn’t stay that way for long. Forty years later Clark found that Yosemite’s open meadowland had all but disappeared, estimating that it had been “at least four times as large as at the present time.” The reason for this, known in the nineteenth century but little appreciated until recently, were the many ways that Yosemite’s first inhabitants had transformed their environment over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Chief among these was the strategic use of fire.

[HT to Kottke blog (a favorite of mine!) which alerted me to Johnson’s Scientific American post!]

S. 2206 set to eliminate NTIS: fundamentally misunderstands the Internet @TomCoburn @McCaskillOffice

While I’m all for “streamlining the collection and distribution of government information” as the title of S. 2206 “Let Me Google That For You Act” and it’s companion House bill H. R. 4382, doing away with the National Technical Information Service will do the opposite of that.

As we noted in our analysis of the GAO’s 2012 NTIS report and in our post in January 2014 when Senator Tom Coburn first floated the idea of getting rid of NTIS, Senator Coburn — and now Senator McCaskill along with him — “fundamentally misunderstands the Internet and misrepresents the case by stating that “elsewhere” to him is google and usa.gov, *internet search engines*! Doesn’t he realize that Google and USA.gov are simply pointing to NTIS, so if NTIS goes away, the reports that his staff found there will go away too.” Additionally, Federal agencies — not to mention the public! — sometimes need to pay for these reports because they’re copyrighted!

NTIS operates on a cost recovery basis because CONGRESS created it that way. It should also be noted that GAO’s conclusions — along with NTIS comments about the conclusions — are that 1) first and foremost, NTIS offers a valuable service of access to the federal scientific literature but 2) their current fee-based cost-recovery model is not sustainable. GAO did NOT conclude that NTIS should be dismantled.

As we said in our original analysis of the GAO report, We’ve got some better suggestions for how to handle critical technical reports published by the Federal government:

  1. FUND NTIS so they don’t have to work on a cost-recovery basis.
  2. put NTIS under the umbrella of the OSTP directive on public access to federally funded research.
  3. Make technical reports OPEN ACCESS!
  4. Institute a digital preservation plan for NTIS reports so that NTIS not only streamlines access, but assures their LONG-TERM preservation and access.
  5. Distribute NTIS metadata so that technical reports can be more easily found (another goal of this legislation!)
  6. Partner with FDLP libraries for long-term preservation and widespread access!

If you agree, please write to Senators Coburn and McCaskill and let them know how they can help assure public access and preservation of valuable scientific information!

S. 2206, the Let Me Google That For You Act, would eliminate the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which is charged with trying to sell government report that are available online for free.

“This is the ‘let me Google that for you’ office of the federal government,” Coburn said. “Nearly all of the reports being sold are already available for free on other government websites, including my own.”

The senators cited a Government Accountability Office report saying the NTIS has lost at least $1.3 million during the last decade and runs a deficit on its document production.

“This agency has clearly outlived its usefulness,” McCaskill said. “I find it staggering that the agency is selling government reports both to the public and to other federal agencies that are widely available for free and easy to find with a simple Google search — and the agency is still losing money.”

McCaskill and Coburn said it should be a top priority for Congress to reduce spending and eliminate the unnecessary agency.

via Senate bill eliminates agency that sells free reports | TheHill.

OSTP releases new directive to improve the management of and access to scientific collections

Today, the US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a directive to federal agencies that own or support scientific collections calling for improved management and access to these collections. Here’s the directive text (PDF).

Scientific collections are assemblies of physical objects that are valuable for research and education—including drilling cores from the ocean floor and glaciers, seeds, space rocks, cells, mineral samples, fossils, and more. Federal agencies develop and maintain scientific collections as records of our past and investments in our future.

These collections are public assets. They play an important role in promoting public health and safety, homeland security, trade, and economic development, medical research, resource management, education, and environmental monitoring.

They are studied across diverse fields of research and are used and re-used to validate and extend past research results as new analytical techniques develop. For the American public, students, and teachers, they are also treasure troves of information ripe for exploration and learning.

And there is no better time to highlight this important new policy than Sunshine Week – an annual celebration of transparency and public participation in government.

The memorandum released today fulfills the requirements of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 that called on OSTP to develop “policies for the management and use of Federal scientific collections to improve the quality, organization, access, including online access, and long-term preservation of such collections for the benefit of the scientific enterprise.”

A short quote from the directive that provides some sense of the scope:

Therefore, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hereby directs each Federal agency that owns, maintains, or otherwise financially supports permanent scientific collections to develop a draft scientific-collections management and access policy within six months. Agencies should collaborate through the IWGSC [the Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections] while developing these draft policies to reduce redundancy and identify opportunities for common requirements and standards. The end goal will be a systematic improvement of the development, management, accessibility, and preservation of scientific collections owned and/or funded by Federal agencies.

The requirements below are intended to apply to institutional scientific collections owned, maintained, or financially supported by the U.S. Government. This policy applies to scientific collections, known in some disciplines as institutional collections, permanent collections, archival collections, museum collections, or voucher collections, which are assets with long-term scientific value. Materials assembled specifically for short-term use, sometimes referred to as “project collections”, and not intended for long-term preservation, do not fall under this policy, but such collections should be reviewed periodically and carefully to ensure that they should not be considered institutional collections.

via Fossils, Seeds, and Space Rocks: Improving the Management of and Access to the Nation’s Scientific Collections | The White House.

NYU Libraries Hosts Live Webcast of National Event Exploring Government Secrecy and Openness During Sunshine Week

A live webcast of a discussion on the impact of government suppression and manipulation of scientific information on public health, safety, and accountability at national, state, and local levels, entitled “Closed Doors; Open Democracies?”, will be hosted by New York University Libraries’ Business and Government Documents Center and the Coles Science Salon on Monday, March 12, from 1-2:30 p.m. The webcast will be shown at 19 W. 4th Street, room 101 in New York City.

The event features Ira Flatow, host and executive producer of NPR’s “Science Friday” and two panels of experts in a national dialogue addressing issues of access to government information. The webcast is free and open to the public. Visit OpenTheGovernment.org for a list of venues, registration information, and more.

The first panel will focus on national issues and will feature such speakers as Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, presenting an overview on “how secrecy can make you sick”; Rick Piltz, whistleblower on the Bush administration’s manipulation of scientific reporting related to global warming; Susan Wood, former FDA official who quit over the delay of Plan B; and Jay Dyckman, director of The Knowledge Project.

Panel 2 focuses on state and local issues. Speakers include Dorothy Biggs, former EPA librarian; Bill Wolfe, director, NJ Chapter of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; and Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner.

The program originates from the National Press Club in Washington D.C. and kicks off Sunshine Week 2007.