What Barack Obama Can Do to Rescue Science from Politics

by Matthew Freeman

April 03, 2009

The Bush Administration earned its reputation for being contemptuous of science. From suppressing an EPA global warming report so as not to put the federal government’s imprimatur on the scientific consensus that climate change was real and human-caused, to simply refusing to open an email containing formal scientific findings inconvenient to its policy objectives, the Bush crowd took manipulation of science to previously unknown extremes. But as CPR President Rena Steinzor points out, the Bush Administration didn’t invent the practice. Science and scientists have been under political pressure from a variety of sources and in a variety of ways for quite some time now.

That’s why the departure of the Bush political appointees who did the most egregious manipulating does not alone solve all the problems. In a letter sent today to John Holdren, the President’s top science advisor, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholars Rena Steinzor and Wendy Wagner spell out several specific steps the Administration can and should take to protect science and scientists from manipulation.

The letter comes on the heels of the President’s March 9 directive to Holdren to prepare specific recommendations to fix the problem, and to deliver those recommendations to the President’s desk by early July. Steinzor and Wagner’s highlight the stakes in the effort, writing that “Difficult questions regarding climate change, toxic chemicals, and consumer products loom on the horizon, and the agency officials tasked with resolving those questions need to be able to rely on the science at their disposal.”

Their recommendations include:

  • Eliminate systemic biases that favor industry-funded science. Today, industry-funded researchers don’t have to make their data publicly available in the same ways that publicly funded researchers do. Steinzor and Wagner warn of according industry research “most favored science status,” and say that federal agencies should require private research used for regulation to satisfy at least the same transparency and disclosure requirements as are currently applied to publicly funded research.
  • Clean up bias and conflicts of interest on scientific review panels. Many federal agencies such as the EPA use advisory panels to provide expert guidance on how to design regulations that protect the public. But under existing laws, the panels can easily be filled with members who do not accurately represent the views of the scientific community, sometimes with a heavy pro-industry bias. Agencies should improve the processes that they use to screen potential advisory committee members for biases and conflicts of interest.
  • Stop excessive secrecy in environmental and public health information. Federal agencies have been complicit in regulated businesses’ attempts to shield useful risk information from the public through overbroad use of the trade secrets doctrine. By simply stamping any submission to an agency as a “trade secret” or “confidential business information (CBI),” manufacturers increase the likelihood that the information will be kept under lock-and-key, out of the reach of both the general public and officials who lack the proper security clearances. Federal agencies should reform their CBI policies, limiting the kinds of information that can be kept secret.

One other point Steinzor and Wagner make is a procedural one: because the science policy Holdren is charged with producing is so important, the Administration ought to seek public comment on it. It’s not obligated to do so, but it’d be well worthwhile. To its great credit, the Administration recently solicited public comment on a forthcoming memo setting the ground rules for regulatory policy for the Administration. No doubt the resulting policy will be better for the additional input, and it says a lot about the Obama Administration’s commitment to transparency that it solicited comments when it was not required to do so. (Just try imagining the Bush Administration doing that.) Clean science deserves the same consideration.

Some of the most profound policy challenges we face today hinge on matters of science – global warming, chief among them. Denying the science and intimidating the scientists may serve someone’s narrow interest, but we all pay a price in the long run. It’s way past time to save science from politics.

For more: Steinzor and Wagner took up the same topic in an op-ed published in late March in the Baltimore Sun, Austin American-Statesman, and Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Or take a look at the Center for Progressive Reform’s July 2008 white paper on de-politicizing science, Saving Science from Politics: Nine Essential Reforms of the Legal System.

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Also from Matthew Freeman

Media relations consultant Matthew Freeman helps coordinate CPR's media outreach efforts and manage its online communications. His media relations experience in Washington spans more than 30 years, and his client list includes a range of organizations active on the environment, education, civil rights and liberties, health care, progressive organizing in the interfaith community, and more.

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