NIH’s DRAFT Data Management and Sharing Policy: We Need to Hear From You!

Around this time last year, I wrote about a request for information (RFI) on potential key elements that could comprise a future NIH data management and sharing policy.  Not surprisingly, we received a lot of helpful feedback. Most commenters supported data sharing and the importance of prospectively planning for where, when, and how scientific data should be managed and shared.  There were, however, concerns about how one policy could fit all sizes and types of data across the biomedical research universe as well as potential burden on the research community.

Over the course of the last year, NIH has been incorporating many of these suggestions into our thinking and continuing to engage the community on their thoughts about data management and sharing. We’ve also been working with sovereign Tribal Nations through consultation sessions held across the U.S which have been vital in shaping NIH’s perspective on the potentially unique data sharing needs of those communities.

Today, NIH has released for public comment in the Federal Register a Draft NIH Policy for Data Management and Sharing along with supplement draft guidance. The draft policy furthers NIH longstanding commitment to making available the results and products of the research we fund and conduct.

To facilitate public comments, NIH has established a web-portal where folks can easily and securely provide their feedback.  The portal can be accessed by clicking here. To ensure that your comments are considered, responses must be submitted no later than January 10, 2020.

I recognize that there is a perception that a Draft policy represents a finished product, that NIH has already made up our mind. I want to assure you that this is not the case.  It is very important that we hear from the stakeholder community about what you think works and doesn’t work with respect to what we have proposed. We are also eager to hear your thoughts on the utility of the supplemental draft guidance or recommendations for any other guidance materials that would be helpful. I previously wrote a blog on best practices for public comments that you might find useful.

Finally, to further engage stakeholders, NIH will be hosting a webinar on the draft policy in the near future. Please stay tuned for the details. We look forward to hearing what you think about the draft policy and supplemental draft guidance and encourage you to broadly share its availability and our request for comments.  With your help, we can ensure that the draft policy maximizes the myriad benefits of data management and sharing while minimizing the burden to the research community.

Posted by Dr. Carrie D. Wolinetz, November 6, 2019

Ethics is Not a Dirty Word

When thinking about the intersection of policy and science, the notion of ‘ethical considerations’ often arises, usually in the context of ‘research should move forward while taking into account ethical considerations’. This framing can lead to strong reactions from researchers, who suggest that this will result in additional regulatory burden or bioethicists telling scientists do their jobs.  After thinking deeply about this issue, we understand where some of the confusion lies and are on a mission to try to clear it up. To many scientists, the word “ethics” appears to be code for terms like “regulation”, “oversight” – or worse – additional paperwork that does nothing to increase protections or advance science. This makes sense in a way, since the ethical principles of the Belmont report, which are the foundation for today’s human research participant protections, are actually codified through regulations like the Common Rule.

However, it is helpful to take the concept of ethics– moral principles that guide one’s behavior – back to its roots.  Ethics are more than just following the rules; it is about the abstract notion of how to “do the right thing” even in the absence of a law, regulation, or policy telling you that you have to. And here at the NIH, the world’s largest publicly funded biomedical research agency, we are always thinking about how to do the right thing.

As a publicly funded research agency, NIH has an ethical responsibility to be good stewards of those dollars invested by the public. This is reflected in the language of our agency; we are ultimately beholden to the taxpayers who collectively invest in making sure we – and the people and work we fund – behave in an ethical fashion. We have a mission to fulfill, public trust to maintain, and an imperative to ensure that we are funding the highest quality, responsibly conducted science. This IS our ethical mandate.

Now, as scientists, we completely understand the deep and urgent desire to be precise in our language. While the often imprecise nature of the term “ethics” begs further clarification from scientists, for many away from the bench, the concept is clear and its intent is crystal clear – it crops up in everyday discussions about the implications of implementing new biotechnologies, the distribution of funding across the NIH portfolio, the pros and cons of animal research, and the access of research results. When we ask scientists to ensure their experiments are rigorously designed and results are transparently presented, that is in the context of this stewardship (incidentally, it is also good for science). The flipside of that is it means poorly designed experiments could be described as unethical; and that’s the sort of framing that scientists tend to object to.

When scientists bristle against incorporating the word ethics, or the associated ethical considerations, in conversations around research, it gives the false impression that it is the rejection of the concept of ethics in the conversation. Obviously, we know this to not be true.  Many scientists hold themselves to the highest standards and think through ethical issues daily, whether it’s appropriate housing conditions for research animals, end of life issues, or privacy protections for human data.  What’s more, the conflation of ethics and regulation – and the knee jerk response it provokes from a community greatly concerned about regulatory burden – can derail the more productive conversation: how do we practically weave ethical considerations into the day to day conduct of science? For instance, neuroscientists around the globe are already self-assembling to proactively develop guides for researchers to think through potential ethical challenges early and often.

Ethics is not a static concept, nor is science. Moral principles evolve over time in society – and sometimes within ourselves – and our understanding of the world around us changes with each new discovery. At one point in history, it was considered a public good to experiment on humans regardless of their consent. By today’s standards, most would agree that principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice autonomy outweigh forgoing consent. In the distant past, many believed that animals were not capable of interpreting pain, whereas today we take our ethical obligations seriously to alleviate any discomfort or distress when possible. Ethical considerations are often judgment calls, thus they are not policy nor regulation nor enforceable. Consideration of ethics can sometimes be best served by asking ourselves and each other tough questions: Why are we doing this particular experiment?; Is this the best way to answer this question or is there another way?; Are the ethical issues raised by any given approach outweighed by the unique value of answering the scientific questions or do ethical issues outweigh the value of the science? Questioning the whys and hows of the ethics of science is not the same as suggesting we should not move forward. It is an opportunity for introspection, for improvement, and ultimately for reinforcing the contract we have made with the public to responsibly solve the challenges faced by us all.

This blog was co-authored by Dr. Lyric Jorgenson, Deputy Director of the NIH Office of Science Policy

Posted by Dr. Carrie D. Wolinetz, November 4, 2019

Lyric Jorgenson, PhD
NIH Associate Director for Science Policy
About Lyric