Sunday, September 15

Editorial: Economic disclosure law should be extended to forms filed by researchers

A transparency bill recently signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown should be expanded in scope to bring greater openness to the University of California.

Last week, Brown signed Assembly Bill 409, a measure that authorizes the Fair Political Practices Commission, California’s watchdog agency, to establish a publicly accessible database of economic disclosure forms.

AB 409 streamlines the process of storing and accessing Statements of Economic Interests, or Form 700s, which state employees, including many University of California officials, must fill out. The documents detail gifts and some forms of non-salary income.

But the new legislation misses a crucial set of documents that should be collected in the drive for greater public access.

Many UC researchers who are not required to fill out Form 700s must nonetheless disclose gifts and income. The forms they fill out – Form 740s – are different from those filed by other public officials. For that reason, they’ll likely be left out of the database mandated under the new measure. According to UCLA Policy 925, individuals on this campus with “responsibility for the design, conduct or reporting of a (research) project,” including all principal investigators, must report significant financial interests.

Reichel Everhart, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who introduced AB 409, told the editorial board that the bill was written with only Form 700s in mind.

But a mandate to include all researchers at public universities in the electronic database of disclosure forms would mark a significant victory for transparency in the scientific establishment at the UC and across this state. At UCLA that transparency is absolutely crucial – our status as one of the world’s premier scientific institutions rests on the credibility of its results and its researchers.

Some researchers and administrators may be concerned that filing their disclosure forms into a publicly accessible database is a challenge to academic freedom or privacy. But that argument is self-defeating; if a researcher receives any gifts or income that he or she does not want the public to know about, that is all the more reason to make that information public.

So when the Fair Political Practices Commission approaches the UC to collect the relevant forms, the University should proffer up a full set of documents pertaining to researchers’ economic interests – not just the Statements of Economic Interest narrowly targeted by AB 409.

It is difficult to encourage a sprawling bureaucracy to be forthcoming with its records beyond stated legal requirements, so Quirk-Silva and the Fair Political Practices Commission would do a great service to the public by extending the law’s mandate to include disclosure forms filed by researchers.

Transparency in research is in the best interest of California taxpayers. It is also a boon for researchers themselves, who become more credible with every effort their parent institution takes to shed light on any potential financial conflict of interest.

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