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Panel urges better separation of science and politics in federal agencies

A panel of ideologically diverse scientific and regulatory experts recommended Wednesday that firm rules be established to keep politics from overriding science when federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, are devising their regulations.

Good luck with that.

Call me cynical, but for too long (the last eight years in particular), science has been shoved aside — sometimes brutally — to make room for various political agendas.

The shoving match between science and politics has been damaging for a host of reasons, as the panel of experts acknowledges in its executive summary:

Such conflict has left the U.S. with a system that is plagued by charges that science is being “politicized” and that regulation lacks a solid scientific basis. As a result, needed regulation may be stymied, dubious regulations may be adopted, issues can drag on without conclusion and policy debate is degraded. Moreover, the morale of scientists is weakened, and public faith in both government and science is undermined.

(I’m puzzled by why the panel put politicized in quotes. Are they implying that such politicization isn’t real, that it’s only in some people’s minds?)

Politically motivated attacks on science have also contributed, I believe, to the dire state of science literacy among Americans.

Full disclosure
The report was published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, which was founded by several former senators, including Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Bob Dole (R-Kansas). The 13 members of the Center’s Science for Policy Project, which issued Wednesday’s recommendations, include former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who chaired the House Science Committee; Donald Kennedy, a past president of Stanford University and former editor of Science magazine; Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania (and former director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Biomedical Ethics); and Sherri Stuewer, a vice president at Exxon Mobil (who, interestingly, has donated money to Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), an outspoken denier of the overwhelming science on the human causes behind global warming).

You can read a press release summary of the panel’s recommendations here or download and slog through the full report here. In general, the report calls for more transparency and disclosure from the advisory committees that are formed to help federal agencies make their policy decisions.

Can such lofty goals be achieved? The industry pushback is already starting. Note the quote from a former Bush administration official and current energy industry lobbyist in this Greenwire article on the panel’s recommendations:

Advisory committees that exclusively review science questions should generally consist only of members with relevant scientific experience, the report says. The authors suggest that these panel members should be categorized as “special government employees,” making them subject to conflict-of-interest and other ethics rules.
But that could be problematic, said Jeff Holmstead, who served as EPA’s air chief during the Bush administration [and who currently works for the Washington law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which lobbies for energy companies]. While an adviser’s ties to industry should be transparent, he said, such a measure could disqualify some of the most capable scientists.

Again, call me cynical.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/08/2009 - 04:39 pm.

    One of the practices contributing to this problem is that Bush appointees chosen for their pro-corporate/anti-science/anti-environmental views had their jobs reclassified by Mr. Bush to make them Civil Service employees.

    They are still, so to speak, “serving” Mr. Bush’s ideology, but cannot simply be replaced with new appointees of Mr. Obama’s choice.

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