The White House's New Science Integrity Policy: A First Assessment

by Wendy Wagner

December 17, 2010

The Obama Administration’s newly released science policy memo is an important and largely positive development in the effort to protect science and scientists from politics. In particular, the policy takes aim at many of the abuses of science and scientists that defined the Bush era. It’s particularly encouraging, for example, that the policy calls on political appointees to take a hands-off approach to science.

That said, in several areas, the policy could have, and should have, gone farther. The tension between science and politics predates the Bush Administration, and systemic reforms are long overdue. The Obama Administration science policy memo was an opportunity to address these issues, but it focused instead on fixing problems primarily from the Bush Administration.

The memo, issued by John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), does not address the permissive approach many agencies have used in their reliance on privately produced science to formulate federal regulations. Private science, generally produced by regulated parties, often involves an inherent conflict of interest. Public access to underlying data and methods of privately produced science is also limited and can sometimes be completely unavailable. Yet the memo focuses on the science produced within the agencies, and not the science that agencies use more generally to develop regulations.  Since private science is often the primary if not the exclusive basis for federal rulemakings in many important legislative areas, the memo avoids tackling a serious, systemic problem in the agencies’ use of science that should have at least been acknowledged, if not addressed. Ironically, in fact, the memo implies that government science lacks full credibility and adequate peer review, despite the fact that government science has strong safeguards in these areas, compared to private science.

The provisions on federal advisory committees take some important steps forward. They rightly call on agencies to require disclosure of conflicts of interest waivers for committee members, to ensure a properly balanced diversity of members of the committees, and to emphasize the need for appropriate qualifications for members. But the document doesn't give precise suggestions on what a “fairly balanced” committee membership "with respect to the functions to be performed by the FAC” would entail. The memo also seems to studiously avoid clarifying what constitutes a “conflict of interest” and when and whether such a conflict should limit a scientists’ membership on a scientific FAC. This leaves ambiguity that could be abused.

Finally, the memo misses an opportunity to direct OMB to steer clear of scientific matters beyond its areas of expertise. Currently, OMB reviews plainly scientific issues such as EPA’s IRIS profiles of particular chemicals. That should stop, and this policy could have been used to stop it.

On the whole, however, the new policy is an important step forward. Hopefully it will be followed by many more positive directives on science policy in the not too distant future.

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Wendy E. Wagner is the Joe A. Worsham Centennial Professor at the University of Texas School of Law, Austin Texas. Prior to joining the University of Texas Law faculty, Professor Wagner was a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law and School of Management, and was a visiting professor at the Columbia Law School and the Vanderbilt Law School.

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