“The Obama administration is quietly trying to make it harder to study public officials”

That’s the title of a Vox article today:

A lot of what we know about how the government works — what motivates politicians, how exactly the three branches of government respond to one another — is thanks to the work of political scientists, who have been studying public officials for decades.

Much of their research, which involves interviews, surveys, and field experiments with politicians, is made possible by a special exemption in federal law that allows academics to study public figures without burdensome ethics restraints that govern all other research conducted on humans.

But the federal government is looking to quietly remove that exemption.

Right now the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which writes the rules on what can and can’t be permitted in human subjects research, is in the process of rewriting its whole ethics code. It issued a set of proposed regulations in September, and January 6 marked the deadline to submit comments on those proposed changes.

Overall, social scientists are pleased with the direction these new rules are pushing: If finalized, surveys and low-risk experiments would no longer be held to the same standard as medical trials, which researchers find unduly burdensome.

But snuck into the 300-plus pages of proposed rules is one line suggesting the government intends to close the major loophole that makes studying public officials practically possible.

The full article is worthwhile, but a little hard to figure out the bottom line. Basically the exemption will be removed and it’s not clear if this will actually affect ethical approvals. It sounds like it could stop researchers from implicating specific officials.

Any opinions here?

Hat tip to Jeff Mosenkis.

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