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Parties on Both Sides of CAS/PubChem Dispute Take to the Web -- and the Hill

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The next chapter in the disagreement between the American Chemical Society and the National Institutes of Health regarding NCBI's PubChem small-molecule database may come via the US Federal Government's FY 2006 appropriations bill, which is currently in the hands of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

As BioInform reported earlier this month [BioInform 05-16-05], ACS claims that PubChem duplicates its Chemical Abstract Service, thereby providing unfair competition for the subscription-based CAS Registry. The Columbus, Ohio-based non-profit scientific society has called upon several state politicians to plead its case in Washington, and in January, Ohio Governor Bob Taft penned a letter to Michael Leavitt, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, charging that PubChem "threatens the very existence of CAS" and its 1,200 Ohio-based employees, who "contribute $16 million in annual tax payments to the State of Ohio, local communities and the federal government."

Now, BioInform has learned, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, chairman of the House subcommittee, is considering adding language to the appropriations bill that would address ACS' concerns, although the specifics of what that language would be — and whether it would limit PubChem's scope or funding — are still unclear.

Craig Higgins, subcommittee clerk, confirmed that PubChem's funding is "an issue of discussion," but said that the outcome of that discussion would not be publicly available until June 9, when the subcommittee is scheduled for "markup," which is when the subcommittee proposes changes to the bill.

A member of Regula's staff said that the congressman is currently in discussions with officials from ACS and NIH regarding the issue.

Meanwhile, parties on both side of the divide are taking their arguments online. Responding to a flurry of activity on several open-access and chemistry listservs and blogs, ACS on May 18 released an open statement and FAQ addressing "some confusion, misunderstanding, and in places, polemics, surrounding ACS/Chemical Abstracts Service concerns with NIH's PubChem project."

The statement (available at http://www.cas.org/acsnih/acscas_statement.pdf) reiterates ACS' request "to 'refocus' PubChem, not discontinue it, but refocus it, on the stated mission: linking and communicating data created by the Molecular Libraries Screening Center initiative, which NIH funds. If NIH would agree to simply focus PubChem on its stated purpose, the controversy would end immediately."

The ACS statement also dismisses NIH's argument that the data in PubChem has been collected from the public domain as "completely irrelevant," adding that "assembling information and publishing it in a variety of forms is what the private sector does."

On May 24, a response came from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and several open-access advocacy groups, including the Public Library of Science, who posted an open letter to Regula expressing "enthusiastic support for continuation of PubChem" and calling ACS' financial concerns "unfounded."

The SPARC letter (available at http://www.arl.org/sparc/oa/PubChemlet.html) states, "We reject the ACS contention that PubChem will compete with the giant CAS. Not only is it implausible that NIH's modestly funded program would be a substitute for the wide range of resources integrated by CAS, but there appears to be remarkably little overlap in either content or likely users of PubChem and CAS."

In addition, the SPARC letter says, "we feel it is not right for ACS/CAS — a tax-exempt organization that received funding from the National Science Foundation to create their chemical registry system — to now be lobbying against taxpayers' interests in this matter."

In its statement, ACS conceded that it received funding from the NSF to support "initial technical development" of the CAS Registry, but added that "investments CAS has made over the last forty years in building the Registry since that time dwarf the amounts provided by the Federal Government."

— Bernadette Toner ([email protected])

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