Rays of Sunshine

by Rena Steinzor

August 19, 2008


I think Wendy paints far too black a picture of the current state of affairs, and that rays of sunshine are beginning to poke through this particularly cloudy sky. I rest my case for more optimism on the increasingly aggressive role that scientific advisory boards are playing when political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency play fast and loose with the science. 

Needless to say, the actions of the Bush Administration, in this and so many other areas, are appallingly radical. Consider the most recent example – the issuance of an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing that EPA does not have legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, despite a Supreme Court opinion telling the Agency that it did have such authority. Or consider the President’s decision a few months ago to side with the Office of Management and Budget and adopt a weaker standard for ozone pollution with respect to the damage that potent chemical smog causes to crops and other natural resources. In both cases, scientists were on the front lines disputing these outcomes in no uncertain terms. Rather than a “battle of the experts,” a battle between the politicos and the scientists ensued.
As Wendy and I observed at the end of Rescuing Science from Politics, the ultimate solutions to the problems caused by the politicization of science must come from scientists themselves. Savvy legislators like Congressman Henry Waxman can craft reforms that will pull the legal system off the backs of regulatory science by, for example, ending the misuse of laws like the Freedom of Information Act to hide science about adverse health effects (H.R. 6100, § 513) or tightening up on the loopholes that allow agencies to rely on advisory panels that are not balanced for bias, in contravention of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (H.R. 5687). But to make sure that scientific findings are not distorted and force decisionmakers to admit that policy or politics and not science is driving their decisions, scientists must step up to the challenge.
You have only to look at the website for the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), the blue ribbon panel of the nation’s best experts on air pollution, to see multiple examples of scientists blowing the whistle on such fraudulent distortions. In the past few years, CASAC has actively engaged EPA officials in a dialogue about the need to revise standards for ozone, fine particulate matter, and lead. Even though political appointees have not followed this advice, CASAC members have stood their ground, explaining patiently why they think science itself justifies greater protections.
Of course, Wendy and I would never argue that decisions about National Ambient Air Quality Standards should be based exclusively on science – invariably, such decisions must also consider how precautionary the final standard should be given the Act’s injunction that protections be crafted to provide an “adequate margin of safety.” But if we get to a place where politicians are forced to “own” their decisions because scientists won’t let them say “the science backs me up” or “the uncertainty of the science made me do it,” then we have come pretty far.

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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