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Transparency in Government and Transformative Science

by Jeffrey Salmon on Mon, May 04, 2009

Jeffrey Salmon


I recently had the opportunity to speak with members of DOE's Scientific and Technical Information Program (STIP) at their annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a collaboration that works and is critical to OSTI's success. It is supported by a DOE Order, but there is no compulsion in the order. This is an "order" only insofar as it sets out an expectation that the National Labs will share their R&D output, in whatever form, with OSTI for its free and open distribution. There are no penalties attached to failing to meet this expectation. None are needed. The system works smoothly. The Order does make the point that spreading scientific knowledge is important; it announces an important intention and frames how that intention is to be carried out. And the whole process is working well.

This practice of making R&D results as freely available as possible has roots extending back long before there was a Department of Energy and indeed before there was an Atomic Energy Commission. The historic grounding for STIP and for OSTI is worth thinking about as we consider what transparent science might mean today.

Near the end of the Second World War - November 17, 1944, to be exact - President Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush, then the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to apply the experience of our R&D war efforts - most of which was done in utter secrecy - to the "days of peace ahead". Roosevelt asked for guidance on four major points. Let me share with you the very first issue he addressed to Bush.

"First: What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge. The diffusion of such knowledge," Roosevelt goes on to say, "should help us stimulate new enterprises, provide jobs for our returning servicemen and other workers, and make possible great strides for the improvement of the national well-being."

Bush responded to the President's call with the now famous report, Science: The Endless Frontier, published in 1945. In it, he articulated the rationale for a robust governmental role in science and presented the blueprint of how that was to be accomplished. It's a rationale we repeat today, often without appreciating its origins, and it's a blueprint we follow today in significant ways.

Bush's core argument - that science is a proper concern of government - seems so obvious to us today that one might wonder why he needed to make it. But government's role in science outside the military sphere wasn't a given in his day and opening government secrets that helped win the war would have struck many people as dangerous.

Here's what Bush answered:

"It has been basic United States policy that Government should foster the opening of new frontiers. It opened the seas to clipper ships and furnished land for pioneers. Although these frontiers have more or less disappeared, the frontier of science remains. It is in keeping with the American tradition - one which has made the United States great - that new frontiers shall be made accessible for development by all American citizens.

"Moreover," he continued, "since health, well-being, and security are proper concerns of Government, scientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to Government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny."

And Bush told President Roosevelt that to do all this, "the lid must be lifted" on war-time science and "the government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge...."

This meant that government should assist in disseminating scientific work within the U.S. - among colleges, universities, labs, and industry - but also look to cultivating international agreements on the "flow of scientific information." In fact, the "increasing specialization of science will make it more important than ever that scientists in this country keep continually ahead of developments abroad," he concluded.

Vannevar Bush's endless frontier seems to anticipate - and increase - endless competition in science.

We know what happened in the post-war era. Bush's advice was largely heeded and America became the most powerful economic and industrial colossus the world has ever seen. Does anyone think this would have occurred had the U.S. remained insular, held tight its scientific discoveries, and feared the diffusion of knowledge?

So, we have, since at least 1945, an obligation to increase the availability of scientific information to the nation and the world. We are doing this now in the digital age and we have some tools that were not available to President Roosevelt, but the principle is the same. We are simply following in the footsteps.

So where are we today? We have a new administration so we can't be entirely certain, but what I see are two trends. First, the President is focused on transparency and second, the Secretary of Energy is focused on science.

I think we need to think about how these two things come together.

This is a memo from the President concerning transparency, participation, and collaboration.



SUBJECT: Transparency and Open Government



My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.

I direct the Chief Technology Officer, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Administrator of General Services, to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB, that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum. The independent agencies should comply with the Open Government Directive.


This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.


This memorandum shall be published in the Federal Register.





I've inserted this memo in its entirety because it carries an important message for OSTI.

Transparency is what we are here for, making R&D results transparent. We want citizens and scientific and technical specialists to know what government is doing and how we are spending research dollars. This commitment to transparency is one that the President is going to champion.

Joining this commitment to transparency is Secretary Chu's commitment to science as a transformative agent of our energy challenges. In congressional testimony, he said,

"I have spent most of my career in research labs - as a student, as a researcher, and as a

faculty member. I took the challenge of being Secretary of Energy in part for the chance

to ensure that the Department of Energy Laboratories and our country's universities will

generate ideas that will help us address our energy challenges. I also strongly believe that

the key to our prosperity in the 21st century lies in our ability to nurture our intellectual

capital in science and engineering. Our previous investments in science led to the birth of

the semiconductor, computer, and bio-technology industries that have added greatly to

our economic prosperity. Now, we need similar breakthroughs on energy." (Before the

Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, Washington, D.C.,

March 5, 2009)

Several points are worth noting. First, this isn't a one-off statement by the Secretary. The theme of science as a transformative agent suffuses everything he does at DOE. Second, note his focus on the national labs and integration of labs and universities. In another part of the testimony, the Secretary also stresses the role of industry.

I think we need to take these two trends - transparency in government and transformative science - very seriously. They suggest an opportunity for us to lead in the effort to make science more transparent.

There seems to be little argument ... from the time of Vannevar Bush to today ... that making scientific research more open accelerates the advancement of science.

So, given these opportunities to move forward on transparent science, what can we offer? This is a question ... and a challenge ... I pose to readers of this blog. It would be unwise for us to ignore these trends, and it would also be unwise for us simply to sit back and let nature - or in this case, government - take its course. The course might not necessarily be to your liking. I urge the readers of this blog to respond.

Dr. Jeffrey Salmon
Deputy Director for Resource Management
Office of Science
U.S. Department of Energy

Page last updated on 2017-08-11 09:36

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Jeffrey Salmon
Deputy Director for Resource Management, U.S. DOE Office of Science