Preserving Access to Government Scientific Data under the Trump Administration

MFSThe inaugural March for Science was organized to coincide with Earth Day on April 22, 2017.  Tens of thousands of people rallied in Washington, DC and over 600 other locations across the globe. The organizers were motivated by what they saw as the Trump administration’s hostility to science on a variety of issues. These ranged from Trump’s own statements denying climate change, to the anti-science posture of officials appointed to key federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Energy Department, to proposed funding cutbacks at the National Institutes of Health.

From the time Trump was elected president, scientists and their allies have had serious concerns about how this would affect the federal government’s policies on science. One of their deepest fears is losing access to the vast amount of scientific data maintained by the federal government and made available to the public. The Obama presidency was committed to open data.  Under the Obama administration, “increasing access to scientific data and research findings generated by Federal agencies or resulting from Federally funded research” was viewed as a policy priority.  This policy has been reversed since Trump took office.

For example, Victoria Herrmann, an Arctic researcher, reported that the U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic, Implementation Plan for the Strategy, and reports about progress, disappeared from government websites the day after Trump’s inauguration. She stated that the months that followed have been “transformed into a slow, incessant march of deleting datasets, webpages and policies about the Arctic.” Other reports indicate that while outright deletion remains relatively uncommon, the new administration is making data harder to find, and will soon be cutting funding to the point where collecting data becomes difficult for federal agencies.

In response to these concerns, scientists, programmers, librarians, academics, and others have gathered in locations across North America at “data rescue” events organized by groups such as Data Refuge and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI).  EDGIThese gatherings are essentially hackathons during which participants endeavor to download, save, and archive scientific data maintained by the government.  Event organizers face continuing technical and logistical challenges, including: developing broadly-applicable tools that can be used to extract data from a variety of government websites, confirming the integrity of the data, securing sufficient long-term storage, documenting the chain of custody, and developing procedures to facilitate future public access. 

Amidst the ongoing data rescue efforts, it was widely reported that in the event of a government shutdown, on April 28, 2017 the EPA would take down their Open Data portal that provides data on climate change, pollution, and public health. The EPA subsequently responded that the portal would not be updated, but would not go dark in the event of a shutdown. This episode nonetheless raised an important question: can federal government agencies like the EPA simply delete data or deny public access to the data they maintain?

On this issue, federal agencies are constrained by statutory and administrative regulations. The Paperwork Reduction Act states that government agencies must “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying, or terminating significant information dissemination products.” 44 U.S.C. § 3506(d)(3).  The Federal Records Act (FRA) further limits how federal agencies can dispose of data. The FRA broadly defines records to include “all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, Nara-Logofunctions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them.”  44 U.S.C. § 3301(a)(1)(A). The statute requires permanent records, i.e. those of continuing value, to be preserved and deposited in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has provided administrative guidance on how scientific, environmental, and technical data can be appraised and preserved. Notably, on December 22, 2016, NARA sent all federal agencies a memorandum on preservation of federal records that stated: “In many cases, websites contain databases or datasets. We remind agencies that such data, or the systems in which they reside, must be scheduled as Federal records.”

It is still an open question as to whether these laws have any teeth. Patrice McDermott, the author of Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information (2007), recently stated that while the Federal Records Act makes it an offense to knowingly and arbitrarily destroy government records, “No one — NO ONE, period! – has ever been prosecuted for doing it.”  Moreover, in Kissinger v. Reporters Committee, 445 U.S. 136 (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Federal Records Act was created to benefit the federal government and its agencies, ruling that the statute contains neither an express nor an implied private right of action.  

The battle over science policy and scientific data also rages on in the political arena. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) has introduced H.R. 1232: “Save America’s Science Act” to require Federal agencies to maintain and preserve their data assets — even as other proposed bills make their way through Congress which purport to promote transparency in scientific research but would gut the efforts of the EPA if passed, according to critics.  

Data rescue events continue to be organized across the country, and it remains to be seen how effective they will be in scaling up the extraction and archiving of data.  These efforts have, at the very least, brought visibility to the importance of ensuring public access to the treasure trove of scientific data maintained by the federal government.

President Grants Clemency to 231 Inmates, a One-Day Record

from Whitehouse.gov blog

Today, President Obama granted clemency to 231 deserving individuals — the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation’s history. With today’s 153 commutations, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The President also granted pardons to 78 individuals, bringing his total number of pardons to 148. Today’s acts of clemency — and the mercy the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients — exemplify his belief that America is a nation of second chances.

chart_121916_commutations

The 231 individuals granted clemency today have all demonstrated that they are ready to make use — or have already made use — of a second chance. While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.

New GAO Transition App Allows Users to See Changes Needed Across Federal Government

from GAOgao

To help make the upcoming presidential and congressional transitions as informed as possible, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has launched a new mobile app that provides users easy access to the watchdog agency’s priority recommendations for improving government operations.

GAO has organized its work to help President-elect Donald Trump and the next Congress tackle critical challenges facing the nation, fix agency-specific problems, and scrutinize government areas with the potential for large savings,” said Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO. “With our extensive experience analyzing government programs and agencies, GAO is well positioned to help bring policymakers up to speed on a wide range of pressing issues.”

Dodaro also pointed out that GAO realizes both new Presidential and Congressional personnel will have to move quickly from the campaign trail to governing. “Consequently, we’ve tried to make sure the app as directly as possible lays out quick lists of the major changes needed and allows users to navigate right to GAO’s reports for all the details.”

The app is available free of charge in the App Store® or Google Play

New Law Creates Commission on Native Children

native_american_childrenLast week President Obama signed the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act  into law.  The Commission created by this act, is tasked with the important work of undertaking a comprehensive study of Federal, State, local, and tribal programs that serve Native children, and making recommendations on how those programs could be improved.

This Commission will be housed in an office in the Department of Justice and consist of three individuals appointed by the President and eight individuals appointed by congressional leaders.

Over the past 8 years, my Administration has been committed to working closely with tribes to strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships and to forge a brighter future for all our children. During my own visits to Indian Country, I have been inspired by the talent and enthusiasm of young people who want nothing more than to make a positive difference in their communities. From the Indian Child Welfare Act to working to return control of Indian education to tribal nations, I am proud of the progress we have made over the past 8 years. I applaud the Congress, and in particular Senator Heitkamp, for the efforts that made this new law possible.

–  Barack Obama

Justice Department To Phase Out Use of Private Prisons for Federal Inmates

bopIn an effort to manage the rising prison population the Bureau of Prisons  began contracting with privately operated correctional institutions to confine some federal inmates.  By 2013, as both the federal prison population and the proportion of federal prisoners in private facilities reached their peak, the Bureau was housing approximately 15 percent of its population in privately operated prisons.

2013 was also the year that the Department of Justice launched its Smart on Crime Initiative after identifying reforms that would ensure more proportional sentences and effective use of federal resources.  As a result of that initiative, the Bureau of Prisons is now experiencing declining numbers in the prison population and has decided to stop using private prisons, declaring them less safe than government-run prisons and no cheaper to operate.

“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,”  – Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates

Read full memo from Deputy Yates.

 

 

Library of Congress Updates Online Catalog

Realizing that many users are now accessing their online catalog via mobile devices, the Library of Congress has released a new catalog interface.  The new interface incorporates responsive Web design, which enables optimal viewing and interaction across a wide range of devices. Responsive design provides easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling, regardless of the size of the device, from desktop computer monitors to mobile phones, tablets, etc. LC’s and is ADA-compliant, making the LC Online Catalog accessible to all users including those with disabilities.  In addition, the  Catalog now has its own branding and the Library’s Ask a Librarian service is presented prominently on every page.

loc

Library of Congress collections contain over 162 million books, periodicals, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources. The LC Online Catalog contains 17 million records describing these collections. You can search Catalog records by keyword or browse by authors/creators, subjects, names/titles, series/uniform titles, and call numbers.

Check it out!

Stonewall Inn Named National Monument Honoring the LGBT Equality Movement

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a riot broke out in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, at the time one of the City’s best known LGBT bars.  Over the course of the next several days, more demonstrations and riots occurred in the surrounding neighborhood including Christopher Park.  During these days, because of its strategic location across from the bar, Christopher Park served as a gathering place, refuge, and platform for the community to voice its demand for LGBT civil rights.  The Stonewall Uprising is considered by many to be the catalyst that launched the modern LGBT civil rights movement.  From this place and time, building on the work of many before, the Nation started the march — not yet finished — toward securing equality and respect for LGBT people.

I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s National Park System. Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights. I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us. That we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one.”

– President Obama