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U.S. Panel Urges Clearer, Cleaner Role for Science


Friday, August 14, 2009

A bipartisan panel of experts suggested last week how U.S. regulatory agencies can make better use of scientific advice by being more open in selecting and vetting outside experts, clearer in defining the questions they want answered, and more rigorous in reviewing the relevant literature.

Although the 13-member panel included Democrats and Republicans, academics, environmentalists, and industry leaders, its recommendations may still set off political debate. Critics of the Bush Administration say that its proposals for separating scientific and policy issues would go a long way toward correcting the mistakes of the past 8 years, whereas Bush supporters say that it extends efforts initiated by that Administration.

“The report is a sign that it’s a new ball game,” says Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that battled Bush-era policies on a variety of health and environmental safety issues. “We’ve seen lots of corruption and closed doors, and the transparency and diversity called for in this report would be a big improvement.”

Not quite, says panel member John Graham, who led White House oversight of regulatory efforts under President George W. Bush. Graham, now dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, says the report mirrors the Bush Administration’s “call for clear disclosure of scientific uncertainties in regulatory analysis … and states clearly that the problems are not unique to any particular Administration.”

The report comes from the Science for Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. (bipartisanpolicy.org). “Right now we have a mishmash of policies and no uniformity,” says co-chair Sherwood Boehlert, a retired Republican representative from upstate New York. “What we need is a system that’s as open as possible and one that’s also consistent from one agency to the next.”

Panel members also delivered a warning to the Obama Administration: Asking scientists to make policy undermines science and leads to bad policies. “We need to separate the science from the policy,” says co-chair Donald Kennedy, a former editor-in-chief of Science who led the Food and Drug Administration during the Carter Administration. “Otherwise, groups end up criticizing the science because they don’t like the policy.”

The report concentrates on the use of advisory panels at regulatory agencies, only one aspect of the broader question of how to maintain scientific integrity across the government. The White House is currently reviewing recommendations from science adviser John Holdren for policy changes on the larger issue based on principles outlined in a 9 March presidential memorandum.

2009-08-14 00:00:00