April 2, 1999
Regarding OMBs Proposed
The Society for Applied Anthropology appreciates the opportunity to comment on OMB Circular A-110, "Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Agreements with Institutions of Higher Education, Hospitals, and Other Non-Profit Organizations."
The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) is an international organization with over 2,300 members concerned with the application of the social sciences to the resolution of contemporary human problems. The SfAA is comprised of professionals from many occupations, including academia, business, law, health care, the non-profit sector, and government. Our members come from a variety of disciplines: anthropology, sociology, economics, planning, and other applied social and behavioral sciences. What unites us is a commitment to applying social knowledge for the public good, a commitment exemplified by the career of one of our founding members, Margaret Mead.
The SfAA has a long tradition of discussion, debate, and formulation of guidelines concerning protection of the people we study to insure their privacy. Universities where many of us work have human subjects committees that review and monitor projects to insure that privacy is maintained. The bottom line is that applied anthropologists must make good on the guarantee to subjects that confidential matters are kept confidential.
Public Law 105-277 directs the Office of Management and Budget to amend existing federal regulations to require federal grant-awarding agencies "to insure that all data produced under an award will be made available to the public through the procedures established under the Freedom of Information Act." This directive would apply whether or not the data in question are in the possession of the awarding agency. This action represents a potentially drastic change in the manner in which federally-sponsored research is conducted. The SfAA appreciates the efforts of OMB to limit the application of this regulation to data "used by the Federal Government in developing policy or rules." Nonetheless, for applied social scientists, these proposed changes in the regulations implementing the Freedom of Information Act raise serious problems. Specifically, the SfAA wishes to highlight the following issues regarding the proposed revisions of Circular A-110.
1. In principle, data-sharing promotes the effectiveness, integrity and application of scientific research. The SfAA strongly supports this principle.
2. The practical realities of applied social science , however, require significant protections for the privacy of our human subjects, and for the confidentiality of sensitive information collected in the course of research. In many cases the disclosure of such information could have a serious negative affect on individuals, communities, or organizations who choose to participate in applied research. Some obvious examples include evaluations of intervention strategies to reduce illegal drug use; analyses of American Indian sacred sites claims raised in opposition to proposed natural resource development; and investigations of ethnic prejudice and violence in urban neighborhoods.
3. Applied anthropological research tends to be data-rich, and typically produces both qualitative and quantitative information. Qualitative or textual recordings--whether in the form of interviews, researcher's field notes, or documentary sources--provide inclusive primary data directly addressing the research questions, and contextual information essential for interpreting the primary data. In resulting analyses reference to particular individuals, communities, or organizations is typically excluded unless otherwise agreed upon in advance. Communities and organizations commonly allow researchers relatively unrestricted access on the understanding that the information to be made public will be restricted to a specified set of topics. The revisions proposed for Circular A-110 threaten such understandings, and consequently would threaten the effective application of the results. We recommend that any revisions to Circular A-110 distinguish between a researcher's primary (unprocessed) data, which should be exempt from mandatory data-sharing requirements; and analyzed (processed) data directly supporting an investigation's key research questions, which could be available for peer review under appropriate guidelines.
4. The proposed revisions to Circular A-110 appear to contradict the confidentiality protections in numerous existing federal statutes and regulations. Examples include confidentiality requirements in Section 304 of the National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. 470) and human subjects protections included in Department of Health and Human Services regulations (45 CFR 46). The SfAA strongly suggests that the language of Circular A-110 be revised to clarify that such existing protections are not affected by these revisions.
5. To minimize the administrative burdens potentially involved in making such data available, and to avoid violating existing agreements and understandings with research subjects, the SfAA strongly recommends that revisions to Circular A-110 not apply retroactively, and that these regulations take effect no sooner than two years from the time of final rule adoption.
6. Because of the complex issues involved in these questions of data access and confidentiality, the SfAA strongly recommends that OMB utilize a process of negotiated rulemaking to allow all affected parties to participate in the revisions of Circular A-110.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on these proposed regulations. The SfAA would appreciate being notified of further developments in the revision of Circular A -110. Please direct any further communication on this matter to Dr. John Young, President, Society for Applied Anthropology, at the address given below.