On July 29 the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) unanimously passed S. 779, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act by voice vote. The bill, which calls for public access to taxpayer-funded research, was marked up to bring it into line with the existing White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) policy memorandum and current National institutes of Health (NIH) policy, and will now move to the full Senate for consideration.
FASTR was first introduced in February 2013 in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The bill called on federal agencies with extramural research budgets—to be used by outside institutions—of more than $100 million to make peer-reviewed articles based on the results of that research freely available on the Internet within six months of publication. A week after its introduction, the OSTP instituted its nearly identical mandate for federal funding agencies, although the OSTP directive stipulated a maximum 12-month embargo on papers, rather than FASTR’s six months, and asked that agencies deposit manuscripts in their own archives. While many of the directive’s advocates, including the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), believed that there was still a need to pass the FASTR legislation into law, FASTR died in Congress.
The act was reintroduced in March 2015 by a bipartisan coalition of Senate and House members including co-sponsors Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), as well as Representatives Mike Doyle (D-PA-14), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19), and Kevin Yoder (R-KS-3).
MARKED UP TO MOVE
While FASTR was up for consideration by the Senate during the last three sessions of Congress, it had not gotten traction as a stand-alone bill until the summer of 2015. This was due to several factors, SPARC executive director Heather Joseph told LJ. “First and foremost, [government] agencies were finally coming out with their [own] plans for public access policies. I think everyone has realized that this is the way the world is going to go.” In addition, Joseph said, Sen. Cornyn “decided this was time to make sure that public access becomes essentially the law of the land, rather than just the preference of an administration” and decided to try and move the bill.
“When taxpayers fund government research, the results of those studies must be available in a transparent and timely manner,” Sen. Cornyn said in a statement. “The FASTR Act removes barriers to innovative discoveries and compelling research that can advance science and improve the lives of all Americans.” Earlier this year, the American Library Association (ALA) awarded Sen. Cornyn the 2015 James Madison Award for his work to promote the public’s right to know and improve public access to government information.
Two major changes were made by HSGAC in the July 29 mark-up process. The maximum six-month embargo period was amended to “no later than 12 months, but preferably sooner.” The revised version, officially known as the “Johnson-Carper Substitute Amendment,” also provides a mechanism for stakeholders to petition federal agencies to “adjust” the embargo if that 12-month period does not serve “the public, industries, and the scientific community.” In addition to ensuring that FASTR more closely tracks the OSTP directive, the new language will also meet the preference of major U.S. higher education associations for a maximum 12 month embargo; will eliminate some possible objections to the embargo time from scientific societies; and will ensure that “any petition process an agency may enable is focused on serving the interests of the public and the scientific community,” according to the SPARC blog.
“While we don’t love [the changes],” Joseph explained, “that definitely made it possible for the bill to move.” It was HSGAC’s intention of to iron out all differences ahead of time, she explained, “so there were intensive discussions and negotiations, and also…checking in with the White House OSTP to make sure that there was nothing in the language that they felt ran afoul of what they were trying to accomplish with the directive. I think it speaks volumes that it went through unanimously today.”
Joseph hopes to see FASTR reach the Senate floor by the end of summer or early fall. While Govtrack only gave S. 779 and its House counterpart H.R. 1477 a three percent chance of being enacted, Joseph believes that the bipartisan action by HSGAC signaled strong support for the bill’s agenda, and its committee approval marks the first time that the Senate has acted on a government-wide public access policy. “We can’t simply hope that future Administrations will endorse public access in the same way the Obama Administration has,” Joseph stated on SPARC’s website.
“The public has a right to access government-funded information,” said ALA president Sari Feldman in a statement. “This legislation provides the public―which includes students in libraries and schools across the nation―with opportunities to learn and grow from scholarly research.”
SPARC plans to reactivate its #moveFASTR Twitter campaign, and Joseph told LJ, “We will…continue to work with all of our stakeholder groups: the student groups, patient advocacy groups, consumer groups, higher education associations, and of course our library groups, to make sure all the Senate members are as educated as possible and we have them, hopefully, primed to continue the momentum to bring FASTR to passage.”