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Graham defends FOIA exemption for federal lab research.

Graham defends FOIA exemption for federal-lab research

William R. Graham Jr., the President's science adviser, is carrying to Capitol Hill the administration's plea for a broad new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The 1966 law gives individuals broad rights to search for and acquire nonclassified government information, much of it unpublished, but exempts from disclosure certain data, such as industrial trade secrets, personnel data covered by the Privacy Act and controlled nuclear information. At a Senate judiciary hearing last week, Graham argued for an additional exemption to remove an FOIA "prejudice against government scientists."

The administration included a proposal for just such an exemption in its Superconductivity Competitiveness Act, a bill it sent to Congress on Feb. 23. Aimed at promoting U.S. competitiveness in high technology, this legislation would prohibit FOIA release of any national-laboratory-generated research data that might have commercial value and whose release could "cause harm to the economic competitiveness of the United States."

Graham said at the hearing that government scientists, unlike their colleagues in academia and industry, can be "compelled" to release data, including laboratory notebooks on work in progress -- even when doing so jeopardizes the government's ability to protect patent rights, copyrights or control of trade secrets.

The new exemption, he said, would also close an apparent loophole in export-control law. He noted that in 1984, the Department of Defense received an exemption for FOIA requests involving "strategically sensitive but otherwise unclassified" technologies having both civilian and strategic military applications. But Graham said this exemption does not shield from FOIA similar -- or even identical -- export-controlled information available through other federal agencies. Thus "it appears," he said, "that one could circumvent (export-control) laws using FOIA."

But when Graham was unable to immediately name any scientist harmed by FOIA, several researchers countered that the proposed exemption seems to be the solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Testifying with Graham last week, IBM Vice-President Dean Eastman argued that there is no need to protect early research findings, such as the rapidly occurring advances in high temperature superconductivity. The Yorktown Heights, N.Y., scientist said that explains why IBM has been freely sharing its advances in this field with outside researchers. Also testifying at the hearing was Charles W. Gear, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and president of the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics. He said this sharing of research is essential to validating new findings, avoiding duplication of efforts and exploiting the commercial potential of new ideas.

There is even some concern among policy analysts that the new exemption could be expanded to justify a broader withholding of any government-laboratory research with commercial potential -- from agricultural and biotechnology advances to details on the medical effectiveness of new drugs.

A precedent for this already exists, says Mitchel Wallerstein, staff director in Washington, D.C., for the National Academy of Sciences' 1987 Allen report, which assessed export controls' cost to U.S. competitiveness (SN: 1/24/87, p.55). In an interview, Wallerstein noted that the Defense Department cited its 1984 FOIA exemption to justify prohibiting the disclosure at meetings, in discussions with foreign scientists and in print of any nonclassified national-security-related research that might qualify for withholding under FOIA.
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Title Annotation:William R. Graham Jr., Freedom of Information Act
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 26, 1988
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