Another Reason for Optimism

David Adelman

Aug. 25, 2008

I share Wendy’s concerns but also believe that there is room for optimism, although on different grounds than Rena and John.  Much of the debate over the use of science to support regulation of public health and the environment has focused on the most challenging contexts.  Toxics regulation, as we all know, rests on relatively weak science that is shot through with difficult judgment calls, making the “science” particularly vulnerable to manipulation.  At the same time, a great deal of money is often at stake for those entities subject to regulation, which tends to super-charge interest group tactics and pressure on federal agencies.  In their recent book “Bending Science,” Wendy and Tom McGarity describe the many modes of manipulation in all their disturbing glory.   One source of hope that I have found is areas of regulation for which the stakes are lower and the science more solid.  In these settings innovative approaches may emerge more readily.  One area that seems to have significant promise is ecological monitoring and conservation.  Several organizations have evolved to fill gaps in government programs and the existing science.  NatureServe, for example, is a partnership of environmental non-profits (the Nature Conservancy), governmental agencies (U.S. Geological Service and Parks Service), private sector organizations (Sustainable Forest Initiative), and international agencies (IUCN) that provides “the scientific basis for effective conservation action.”  Its work is highly regarded by a wide range of stakeholders. Similarly, the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) runs a very effective environmental monitoring program.  Founded in 1986, SFEI works on a range issues impacting the San Francisco Bay, including point and non-point sources of pollution, invasive species, and wetlands protection.  Its Regional Monitoring Program is notable for receiving most of its funding from a fee paid by Bay Area point-sources.  SFEI’s distinctive funding model is also reflected in its governing committees, which include members from regulated industries, government agencies, local governments, the scientific community, and environmental groups. SFEI has proven relatively immune to the inefficiencies and inertia often associated with government agencies and the volatile politics that surround them.  Further, by maintaining highly transparent processes, it has avoided perceptions of bias ascribed to private entities and retained a focus on concrete problems that university science often lacks.  Indeed, its work seems to be strengthened by the capacity SFEI has to draw on knowledge and experience in the public and private sectors. I am not certain how generalizable these examples are, but they provide intriguing institutional models – the hybrid public-private institutional links are particularly interesting.  Also in this vein, I wonder whether there isn’t something significant in the capacity of SFEI, in particular, to create an institutional bridge between government agencies, the private sector (both profit and non-profit), and universities.    

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