Taxpayer-Funded Science Is Finally Becoming Public

17:16 minutes

a bird's eye view of a bustling, large public college library.
The new directive will allow expanded access to up-to-date scientific research for the public. Credit: Shutterstock

Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a new directive requiring federally-funded science be made available to the public for free, and faster.

Set to take effect by the end of 2025, the new rule would do away with the Obama-era policy that journals can keep research with taxpayer funding behind paywalls for up to one year. In addition, more kinds of research would qualify than previous policies have required.

So how does freely accessible research benefit the people who pay for it—or the scientists who do the work itself? Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and open science advocate Harold Varmus joins Ira to discuss. 

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Segment Guests

Harold Varmus

Dr. Harold Varmus is the former director of the National Institutes of Health, co-founder of the Public Library of Science, and a professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, New York,

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last week, the White House made it much easier and cheaper to access taxpayer-paid research, research you pay for but then have to pay for again to read it behind a paywall. The Biden administration said data from federally-funded work should all be available to the public for free immediately upon publication.

Advocates of what’s called open science celebrated. Publishers of scientific journals expressed some misgivings, as you might expect. And you may have been left scratching your head about what it all means.

Well, here to help us unpack the new policy and its implications is Dr. Harold Varmus. He’s a Nobel Prize winner, former director of the NIH, and cofounded in 2001 the Public Library of Science, an open-access publishing platform. Dr. Varmus is professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and a senior associate at the New York Genome Center. Welcome back, Harold. It’s been a while.

HAROLD VARMUS: Yes, Ira. Thank you very much. Glad to hear your voice.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. You know, until now, as I say, most federally-funded research has been available to the public only after, what, a year behind a paywall? Tell me what you think this announcement from the White House means in practical terms for the public.

HAROLD VARMUS: Yeah, well, first of all, Ira, this is a long-standing battle between scientists who want to make work, especially work funded by citizens’ dollars, much more available to all scientists and to all members of the public. So this has been going on for over 20 years, ever since the internet was perceived as being an efficient way to transmit scientific findings.

What specifically is endorsed and indeed promoted by this new memo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House is a directive that says that all federal agencies– not just those that are heavily supportive of science, but any that support any scientific or research activities– must have a plan that allows their grantees to put their work in the public domain immediately upon publication. And what that means is the public has an easy way to see anything that has been published.

It has been possible to see a lot of the work after a one-year embargo. The National Institutes of Health, the NIH, established over 20 years ago a public digital archive called PubMed Central, which has the full text of articles submitted to it by its grantees. But that archive was not nearly as useful as it might have been because of reluctance of journals to allow that to happen to articles on which they own the copyright, because investigators have been compliant with the desires of their favorite journals, and for many other reasons, until Congress said to the NIH well over a decade ago, you must get this material into a public database at least within a year after publication. That happened, and now PubMed Central has millions of articles widely used every day by every investigator. But it’s imperiled by not having adequate access to results when they’re published.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is this only aimed at medical research, or is it every kind of research that’s available?

HAROLD VARMUS: In fact, one of the things that’s remarkable about the new memo that was just released is that it addresses all forms of research, even research in the humanities, and certainly research in social sciences as well as natural sciences, and in all fields of science. And I should say that you asked about where you can go to see things. And in the biomedical sphere, it’s PubMed Central. But there are other ways to see things.

Some institutions maintain their own server of papers. Physicists and astrophysicists, mathematicians, computer scientists tend to use a different mechanism that’s based on posting articles at the time that they are written and even before peer review, preprint servers where you put your article. And that’s a phenomenon that’s been particular to physics and the related disciplines as far back as 1991.

And that’s been a remarkable feature which now is affecting biomedical work as well because, especially during the pandemic, scientists in my own field have been posting their results in the form of preprints. And that allows scientists to see work even before it’s gone through what could be a lengthy process of peer review. So preprint servers are another way to deliver the goods. But in this case, the OSTP memo specifically addresses articles that are peer reviewed and published.

IRA FLATOW: Now, this memo, as you say, is saying that making research more available will make science itself also more equitable and more effective. How do you view that? How does that work?

HAROLD VARMUS: Well, in several ways. In the article, we’ve emphasized the major thing, which is the elimination of an embargo. But the article, the memo, does have many other things in it that are particularly appealing. It requires that a detailed plan be made, not just for displaying published articles but also for making the materials useful in machine-based learning exercises so that the format is compatible with extracting as much information as possible.

And it also addresses some social issues that have become quite important during the pandemic. That is, the credibility of science, the reliability of science, the openness of science, science as a positive public good. And I think those are very important issues in this time.

IRA FLATOW: Can you unpack the connection and the importance– let’s talk about this– between research published and its impact on fields like medicine? Why does publication and how it’s paid for or accessed actually affect the way research is done and touches our lives?

HAROLD VARMUS: Publication really is the lifeblood of science. If you do the science and you don’t tell other people about it, it’s as though it weren’t done. It’s useful in many ways, and most obviously in allowing the growth of scientific ideas and validation of those ideas, extension to new things. So scientists communicating with each other is probably the primary mission.

But an even more important mission, though perhaps not quite as prevalent, is the translation of what’s been done into practical products. And that, of course, is one of the strengths of American science, the remarkable relationship between academic basic science and science in industry, that results in important products in the fields of health and energy and everything else, that was first articulated by the US government 75 years ago. I think it’s often unappreciated how important a moment it is in the life of every scientist when a paper they’ve written describing their results actually gets published.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of which, a lot has changed with the data-sharing policies we saw when COVID-19 appeared in 2020. I’m thinking about, how did data sharing allow us to respond better to the pandemic?

HAROLD VARMUS: You bring up an important point because that is also embedded in this memo. That is the intention that all agencies have policies that allow the data that’s relevant to the conclusions drawn in these published papers be accessible for reading and for machine learning. It’s obviously important when data sets are limited to have access to data from other sources that can be amalgamated in a simple way.

There’s no doubt in the minds of almost everybody that the rapid development of the RNA genome of the coronavirus was essential for, first of all, identifying what the agent of COVID-19 was, but then also in developing the vaccines that have been so important in trying to control this pandemic and developing various kinds of tests that allow us to detect the emergence of the variants that have plagued efforts to do public health control of the virus. So I think there are many ways in which it’s obvious that sharing data at the very, very earliest stages through sequence databases and the speed of communication has been remarkable and, of course, helped by the fact that many of our leading periodicals have followed this so closely and so well.

IRA FLATOW: At some point, somebody has to pay for it. Who winds up picking up the tab for the public here?

HAROLD VARMUS: So this is important. And one of the things that some people accuse advocates like me of neglecting is the fact that there are real costs for publication. Nobody’s saying that publication is free. It’s just, we’re trying to promote access. But someone’s got to pay the costs of doing peer review. The costs are much less than they might otherwise be because the authors and the reviewers don’t get paid. Nevertheless, there are costs. And how do they get covered?

Well, the costs should be borne and are largely borne by the funders of research. And if you view the publication process as an element of the research experience, which it certainly is, it’s a very small element– as I mentioned, just a couple of percent– and, of course, essential if you’re going to make use of the work that gets done with the money. So in general, it’s the funders who pay.

And I should step back here just a minute and say that one of things we haven’t discussed is the rise of open-access journals like the Public Library of Science journals. These are journals that make their work immediately available without restriction at the time of publication. They don’t hold the copyright. The copyright’s held by the author. And these articles are free to everybody and placed in repositories like PubMed Central.

The cost of publishing is supported by payment by the investigators who use some of their grant money– a very small amount of it, but a significant amount– to pay the publication fees. And those journals work. They make money. And they do fine.

They don’t make the kinds of profits that have been made by traditional subscription-based publishers like Elsevier and many others. But if you look at this from the point of view of the funder of research, one of the most essential elements in the whole research process is publication because that gets the word out and shows that the money they’ve invested is actually used to generate results that are meaningful to the public and to the scientific community.

IRA FLATOW: I want to take this time to change gears a little bit because I have you here, and I want to take advantage of the decades you have in public service and in research and ask you about the time we live in, where huge conflicts and outright scientific disinformation is circulating. What is your opinion on this? How have you seen this arc in your career? And is this something you’re increasingly worried about?

HAROLD VARMUS: Well, I am worried, of course. It’s hard not to be. I think what we see are actually a number of things. One is that science has become incredibly more powerful, certainly in my own field. The kinds of things we can do today with modern genomics and biochemistry and gene manipulation and computation and a variety of other things just makes the kind of work we do so much more exciting and penetrating that it’s hard not to be enticed by a career doing this kind of thing.

The second arc I see is that responses to some of these temptations to do science has resulted in a large influx of talented people without a commensurate increase in the amount of funds that are available or the number of positions available to do this kind of work. And although there’s been some outlet through the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, in general, people entering our field feel a strong sense of competition. And that has affected the mood and the community to a significant extent. And it actually has an effect on the kind of directive that we’re talking about today because it increases the value of publishing in the very best journals and ensuring that your name goes to the top of the heap when people are considering folks for promotions and appointments and grants and prizes.

And then the third issue, which is one that I think is linked to a number of things, not simply to the pandemic, is a fairly large measure of distrust of scientific work, which is why many of us feel that by becoming more open and transparent, that scientists have a greater chance of having the process of work they do be understood. Science is hard. Science is an effort to understand the way the world works, and it’s not so easy to figure it out.

Just by seeing a new disease has occurred, you don’t instantaneously know what all the answers are. And working these things out is going to be a course that is riddled with dead ends and reversals and misunderstandings and mistakes. And these things need to be explained and understood, and not always so easy. But it seems to me the process is basically an honorable one. And the more open the process can be, the more likely it is that we will expose misunderstandings and the very rare deviations from normal practice in science that can result in non-reproducible results.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking to Dr. Harold Varmus about the value of publicly-accessible scientific research. Now that we’re into this pandemic, or three years or more into this pandemic, and watching as an observer and with your experience, have you noticed any strengths and weaknesses about how we have all handled this? And what would you change or handle differently?

HAROLD VARMUS: There are several things. First of all, I think in the US, we have undervalued practices in public health. And it’s been very clear during this pandemic that we have underinvested in our public health infrastructure, that schools of public health need strengthening, that public health investigators need more funds for the kind of research they do, that we need a stronger level of sustained surveillance for infectious diseases. New methods have emerged, and some are now being used almost in a conventional way, like the monitoring of sewage here in New York to detect– most recently involved the detection of polio virus in our sewage.

Secondly, I think most people in the public domain have seen that science can move incredibly fast in response to a pandemic, much faster than ever has occurred before. And that’s a very healthy thing, too.

Thirdly, I see people understanding some deeper issues in thinking about how virus evolution has occurred that affects their thinking about evolution in general and about the way in which genomics can be used as a tool not only to monitor and understand infectious diseases but to think about many other diseases as well. So the general interest in science in the general public is incredibly high right now. It’s just that there is a very lively and sometimes almost despicable debate when it comes to attacks on individuals that undermines confidence in science in a way that we’ll have to address by other means. And hopefully, making the scientific literature more open will be one of the ways in which that happens.

IRA FLATOW: And no weaknesses that you would try to shore up or might change about how this all went down, or is going down?

HAROLD VARMUS: Well, yeah, sure. I mean, that’s a different question. But I do think that there are ways in which the atmosphere in which science is being done can be changed. One of the things that we’re all terribly concerned about is the fact that our historical minority populations– Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and so forth– have been woefully underrepresented in the scientific community. And many of us are making efforts to try to reverse that.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has illuminated some of those discrepancies. Indeed, just today, the evidence that life expectancy has been particularly shortened in those disadvantaged communities is, again, an illustration of the fact that science has not served our disadvantaged populations and our economically less secure populations as well as it does the current majority white affluent population. That’s something that needs attention. And it’s a different topic, but it’s one that’s incredibly important to me and to many of my colleagues who are seeking ways to increase representation of Black, Hispanic, and Native American populations in the scientific community.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Varmus, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

HAROLD VARMUS: My pleasure. Always good to hear from you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Harold Varmus, professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, former director of the NIH, and cofounder of the Public Library of Science.

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