The Science Community Must Fight Attacks on Science-Based Regulations

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | May 29, 2015, 8:48 am EST
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It is easy in the day-to-day work of science to miss the struggle now being waged in Washington over the role science plays in crafting health and safety protections for America. But that struggle is heating up and the outcome matters not only for the science community but for the country. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, and our Steering Committee of eminent scientists and public servants, are asking you to join the fight in a Policy Forum article published in Science May 29th.

Defending_science

Cleverly named battles

Every year, thousands of scientists in all disciplines take part in the process of advising our government concerning the current scientific evidence and the best interpretation of that evidence on issues ranging from clean air and water to worker safety, product safety, and environmental impacts, to name only a few. It is part of our chosen careers—part of our public service.  I believe my service on advisory panels and committees, program or proposal reviews, and other activities is important and in many ways an honor, though I admit it’s a lot of work. But then, I also believe that the government should be in the business of protecting public health and safety and the environment. The government should protect the public interest and public-trust resources like our air, water, and oceans.

Today, the very process of bringing science into public policy is under a concerted and well-funded attack that may just succeed if we don’t raise the alarm and fight back. To understand what’s happening, consider how hard it is to argue against the principles of health and safety protections themselves. No politician wants to argue against clean air, or child safety. Indeed no politician wants to admit that he or she is undermining the role of science. Attacks on the process under the guise of reform, however, avoid such problems and largely evade notice. Those who advance this anti-regulatory agenda say they want greater accountability and transparency in the advisory process—both laudable goals. And the names of the bills similarly reflect those goals: The Secret Science Reform Act, the Regulatory Accountability Act, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, the Sound Science Act.

But just like shopping malls and housing developments—Quail Hollow, Partridge Run, Deer Meadow, Green Pastures—these bills are named for what they just destroyed.

With the exception of the Sound Science bill, not introduced in the current Congress, the bills named above have either already passed the House or soon will pass that chamber, and are now before the Senate. They employ four tactics that undermine the role of science: 1) replace agency judgement based on science and statutory criteria with a political judgement in Congress with no set criteria or timeline; 2) make procedural changes that make it virtually impossible to provide science advice in a timely manner; 3) restrict the types of science that agencies may rely on; and 4) change the composition and rules for advisory panels to give industry greater influence. Some of the bills use more than one of these tactics. And other attacks on public health, safety and environmental protections now contain much of the same language.

Political influence instead of science

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would require that any regulation with an annual impact of more than $100 million be positively affirmed by both houses of Congress within 70 days.  If not, the regulation cannot go into force. Note the bill says nothing about benefits of a regulation, only costs. At the moment, both houses have been unable to agree on authorizing military action, immigration rules, transportation funding, and the list goes on.

Under current law, an agency must propose a regulation, take public comment multiple times, seek science advice, and justify the regulation based on the statutory requirements, the science, the costs and benefits, and other criteria as laid out in the law. The agency can and inevitably will be challenged in court, perhaps multiple times. I know this because I used to have a leading role in NOAA managing marine resources.

Under the REINS Act, none of that applies. Congress doesn’t need to justify the science basis for its decision and can’t be challenged on that basis. In fact, such a Congressional decision does not even need to be justified as meeting the intent of the law the regulation was proposed under in the first place! The standard of the REINS Act seems to be whether members, and their key influencers, like a particular regulation.

The same mechanism is now proposed to apply to listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act and may well appear in other legislation going forward. Separate from the REINS Act itself, a bill was proposed to create a Select Committee of House and Senate to do the same thing—impose  congressional review of regulations.

Confounding science advice with new procedures

In meeting their statutory mandates, agencies must use the best science available and go through an extensive public process laid out in the Administrative Procedure Act and other laws. By adding additional steps to that process, everything slows down and regulations are put in place more slowly. The Regulatory Accountability Act adds at least 70 new steps to the regulatory process, including special formal hearings on cost-benefit analyses that are structured to allow a cross-examination of the agency, not just public comment. The Sound Science Act requires all scientific findings to be subject to public comment, each time a new finding is considered in the advisory process. That could result in essentially an infinite round of public comment. And the Science Advisory Board Reform Act requires the Board to not only solicit public comment on the science (and it prohibits the placing of time limits on the comment process), but also to respond to every “significant” comment in writing, separate from agency response to comment on rule-making that is now required. This is a huge additional burden on the board and again is designed to slow down the process.

Catch-22

It may not seem like a big deal to introduce requirements that all data, methods and models used as a basis for regulation be publicly available, as called for in the Secret Science Reform Act. After all, the Union of Concerned Scientists consistently supports transparency in government (and business!).

As is often the case, however, the devil is in the details. The bill states that the EPA may not move forward with a regulation unless everything is publicly available. It goes on to state that nothing in the bill requires the waiver of existing confidentiality provisions for businesses, individual researchers, or institutions. In other words, EPA may not make anything public that isn’t already so. In many public health studies and other surveys, participants are assured their data will be held in confidence and only be published in summarized results. Businesses, too, hold rights to keep some information confidential as do individuals with intellectual property rights.

The net effect is that the EPA may not regulate unless they can make, for example, the raw data available from a public health study—but they are not allowed to make that data available, therefore they may not regulate. Catch-22.

Through the looking glass

Science advisory boards already include some scientists who work in industry, and some from the states and tribes. But, according to the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, not enough of them. Under the rationale of this proposed legislation, industry scientists are unfairly excluded simply because they may have financial conflicts of interest. On the other hand, academic scientists should not be allowed to talk about their own work, unless it is published already, and in the House bill, must not serve if they have held an EPA grant in the last three years because they would be biased in favor of the agency. This is the Alice in Wonderland version of conflict of interest—industry is objective but academia is conflicted. Conflict of interest and disclosure is a serious issue, but this is not a serious remedy to improve the process.

Further, the bill requires a set quota for state, local and tribal government representatives on the Board. But science advisory boards are never meant to be representative bodies. Members serve in their capacity as individual experts on the subject matter experts, not as representing specific interests. The emphasis should always be to solicit the best possible scientific advice, not to heed some formulaic requirement for representation of different entities.

Improving the process: can the bills be fixed?

There are undoubtedly improvements that can be made in the science advisory process and in science-based regulations. Disclosure of conflicts of interest, making agency work more transparent, encouraging more scientists to participate and making sure that we are preparing more scientists to engage in the public policy process more effectively are just some of the efforts that merit attention.

Do these bills do that? No. Can they be modified in order to make positive change? I think not, because they are based on the wrong premises. All of these proposals seem to come from starting premises that regulatory agencies and the scientists who work with them have some hidden agenda and that agencies over-reach their mandates and grab for control—and that industry needs to have more influence in the process.

Further, the bills focus extensively on cost-benefit analyses but say little about the benefits side. Sure, industry must bear some of the cost of public health, safety and environmental protections, because industry actions cause many of the potential impacts. But the benefits of cleaner air, water, better worker and public safety are the reasons for the laws in the first place. And they have been substantial. If anyone would like to experience what some of our country would be like without the Clean Air Act, visit Beijing.

Get in the fight

Scientists and other concerned citizens need to fight off these attacks. Not to defend the status quo, but to call out and oppose proposals that don’t have the public interest as their goal. Elected officials need to hear from scientists and other constituents who believe that science-based public health and safety protections are a critical part of the work of government, and that advancing the role of independent science in the process is the best way to ensure these protections are based on the evidence, not political influence. Creating barriers to that science advice is the wrong way to go. Any of the proposals described above have the potential to do long-term damage to the country. We can’t allow that to happen in our democracy without mounting a strong public response.

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  • p-ray smith

    Well, this is a very interesting article. I would agree that these sound like poorly constructed, cumbersome laws, but I do agree with the “intent” behind them. That intent? To preserve financial interest and consideration of economic impact in the face of undue regulation.
    Should businesses be regulated? Of course. But should they be regulated to such a degree that it causes the business to collapse and thus lots of people to lose their jobs? No. The cost-to-benefit ratio must be seriously considered in the face of regulation. A move by the EPA has, as a matter of fact, unnecessarily put hundreds of people in my town out of work. Thus, regulation must take into account the human element, or rather, the everyday human element, something that often is not taken into account.
    To sum up: Regulation is necessary, regulation must be managed, these laws are not the way to do it (apparently).

  • Thank you for your comments everyone. To the question of who is motivating these attacks, there is certainly support and pressure to change the regulatory process coming from trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Manufacturers Association. They are representing business interests that want to boost profits by reducing regulatory costs. That is the source, along with political organizations such as Heritage, that pushes the narrative that regulations are just an attack on business with no real benefits. As noted in the Science article published last week, and in my blog, that ignors the health and safety benefits of regulation. In addition, while the bills are all framed (incorrectly) around government transparency and accountability, they say nothing about industry transparency and accountability.

    On specific bills like the Secret Science Reform Act, the push is clearly coming from the petro-chemical and associated industries. They are fighting hard against changes in the ozone standard and particulate matter standards which affect diesel fuel for example. The Secret Science false premises come from attacks on studies that clearly show the impact of particulates on respiratory health, most prominently the so-called Six Cities Study. In that case, industry and their congressional allies are demanding the raw data for re-analysis because they don’t like the answer. But this public health data was collected with assurances of confidentiality to survey participants so it can’t be released. Even though the study has been reviewed multiple times by the Health Effects Institute and others, the claim is that the researchers and the EPA are keeping the data “secret” in some devious plot to harm industry. That’s why the bill would require all data to be accessible so that ” the public can analyze it for themselves”, and if data can’t be made available the EPA may not move forward with a regulation. A perfect Catch-22.

  • Thank you for your comments everyone. To the question of who is motivating these attacks, there is certainly support and pressure to change the regulatory process coming from trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Manufacturers Association. They are representing business interests that want to boost profits by reducing regulatory costs. That is the source, along with political organizations such as Heritage, that pushes the narrative that regulations are just an attack on business with no real benefits. As noted in the Science article published last week, and in my blog, that ignors the health and safety benefits of regulation. In addition, while the bills are all framed (incorrectly) around government transparency and accountability, they say nothing about industry transparency and accountability.

    On specific bills like the Secret Science Reform Act, the push is clearly coming from the petro-chemical and associated industries. They are fighting hard against changes in the ozone standard and particulate matter standards which affect diesel fuel for example. The Secret Science false premises come from attacks on studies that clearly show the impact of particulates on respiratory health, most prominently the so-called Six Cities Study. In that case, industry and their congressional allies are demanding the raw data for re-analysis because they don’t like the answer. But this public health data was collected with assurances of confidentiality to survey participants so it can’t be released. Even though the study has been reviewed multiple times by the Health Effects Institute and others, the claim is that the researchers and the EPA are keeping the data “secret” in some devious plot to harm industry. That’s why the bill would require all data to be accessible so that ” the public can analyze it for themselves”, and if data can’t be made available the EPA may not move forward with a regulation. A perfect Catch-22.

  • Simon Gramstrup

    The article doesn’t mention who the attacker is ? Has any research been put into discovering the culprits or their funding ?

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  • An attack upon science is an attack upon modern civilization itself. The hyper-religious seem to want to turn all the lights off and push us back into the cave. Science should be well funded with an inherent goal in mind: advancement and innovation … and you never know where those will come from, but scientific research has a long track record of making the technological future of tomorrow happen today.

    • Simon Gramstrup

      Why do you think the attack stems from the religious segment ? It seems to me that the latest victim of science is the economic model of Capitalism (Climate, equality, structural violence etc), and there’s big big money in that battle..

      • Science provides consistent innovation and improvements to capital gains, as investments in science often pay dividends to the wise long-term thinking capitalist. My evidence would be anecdotal, can post dozens of links to instances where science was attacked because of religious thinking ~ attacks on evolution, on stem cell research, on space funding, on education programs, etc … almost always for religious reasons.

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    • p-ray smith

      Why is it that so many people insist that science and religion are opposed to one another? I am a Christian, and am what you would call “deeply religious”, but I also LOVE science! From the time I was a kid, I have watched shows on science and read books on science and thought I my own “solutions” to scientific problems. And let me tell ya something: when science is done in accordance with a Christian worldview, I personally believe it is done “better”. What I mean by better is simply that it keeps the right goals in mind.
      What is the purpose of science? To expand human understanding and improve human life accordingly.
      Tell me, where has evolution “science” ever improved human life?
      The reason those of us who are religious, especially Christians, are opposed to “science” is NOT because of the science itself, but because of the inaccurate conclusions and often forgotten consequences.
      For example, evolution. Proposed by Charles Darwin because of scientific observations about natural selection, he came to the un-observed conclusion that this was how life came to be. Correct observed data, wrong conclusion. The result? A modern society generally unconcerned with morality or ethics. This is, of course, a general statement, but a society that is unaccountable to God, or anyone else, really, for moral decisions is bound to go its own, corrupted way.
      Another example you cited: stem cell research. Now, I am not opposed to stem cell research, so long as it does not destroy human life. That is, so long as it is not destroying fertilized human embryos, which yes, as a matter of fact, count as human beings.
      As to your other comment about space exploration, if anyone opposes that on a religious ground, he really is a looney. The Bible says the whole universe declares the glory of God, and space exploration only furthers the understanding of God’s glory. (By the way, did you know Buzz Aldrin, a huge proponent of science, is a Christian?)
      And education, well, my only criticism with education is that it ought to teach children more than mere head knowledge, and certainly the RIGHT head knowledge at that. Children need responsibility and morals. And so I am most definitely in favor of education improvement and reform.

      If you have actually read all of this, I thank you. I hope that maybe some of you out there will start to realize that the “war” between science and religion is a false dichotomy. I say hurray for science! But I say nay to teachings that lead to the further corruption of mankind.

      • p-ray smith

        Well, I am glad you came back swinging. 🙂 I like I little open debate.

        First, I am certain that modern medical advancements would have happened just fine without evolution. On that one, though, neither side can really say for sure. The past happened one way, and it is pure speculation about whether or not the lack of evolution would have helped or hurt the advance of medicine. (and yes, its true, YOU can’t be sure about this one. We are in the same guessing game boat here.)

        Secondly, I already explained how evolution decreases morality and ethics. Evolution removes God from the equation of life, thus there is no one to truly be accountable to for moral decisions. Evolution glorifies man, setting him up as “the top of the food chain” in evolutionary terms. By doing this, you have in effect made yourself a god and choose morals of your own. Ever heard of this thing called moral relativism? Well, that is an inherent result of evolution (and the philosophies that followed as a result, like Nietzsche’s and Freud’s). And, moral relativism then leads to a general decrease in morality. So believe me, friend, I fully understand what evolution is.

        As for your claim of God being the ultimate baby killer, well, that merely stems from your lack of a concept of human sinfulness. You see, humans, as a whole, are to blame for the suffering that occurs in this world, including the death of unborn babies. When sin entered the world thousands of years ago, everything got whacked up. This was originally a perfect world, but not so anymore. So, it is not God’s fault that so many babies are miscarried.

        And yes, I would agree that I fail to accept scientific “theory” as fact, at least when it has about as much fact to back it up as Howie Mandel has hair on his head. 🙂

      • I can say for certain that without evolution leading to germ theory, vaccinations and antibiotics would never have been developed. Modern medicine, as we know it, would never have development without the theory of evolution.

        Man at the top of the food chain? Evolution indicates not such thing, you’re talking about two separate ideas.. Evolution merely shows how species adapt to changes in their environment, and that those best at adapting tend to survive long enough to reproduce, their offspring gaining their adaptive traits. Moral relativism is a separate idea, but it is a good one worth learning about as well … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SOQduoLgRw … sadly, just shows you lack understanding regarding evolution, recommend you learn what you’re talking about before you start talking out of your ass again … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhHOjC4oxh8

        Both religion and sin are a bad joke, a social evolutionary concept that is akin to a mental virus that has poisoned human consciousness ~ they both has nothing to do with scientific principles. The problem with both religion and sin, they lack scientific evidence to support them ~ ideas that should have been discarded with the enlightenment, if not that religion has been so persistent …

        Which scientific theory do you think lacks evidence? Perhaps it would be worth showing you the excessive amounts of evidence … and just remember, *if even a single point in a theory can be disproved, the entire theory falls*, and is reworked to include the new contradictory evidence ~ that’s how science works. Go for it, try to disprove a scientific theory ~ you’ll be eligible for the Nobel Prize … just remember, failing to provide evidence will lead to more laughing at you … and I’m already laughing at your delusion …

      • p-ray smith

        *sigh* Well, despite your haughty attitude, I want to keep this friendly, as I really do care about you and whether or not you know the truth. Now, To begin, I did a little research on the germ theory, and am curious as to why you claim it could only have arisen through evolutionary study. I am almost certain that the field of micro-biology was around before evolution and would have continue to advance just fine with out the theory of evolution.

        Speaking of evolution, I watched your video there, and I am relatively certain I didn’t learn anything new. You see, I have no quarrels with natural selection and micro-evolution/adaptation. The problem, as I stated before, is when one assumes that these things mean that all life evolved in a billions-of-years long process from one simple creature all the way up to the more complex creatures, like us. One is observable, the other is not. The thing is, when those badgers “evolved” with hairier ears, they were still badgers. They didn’t mysteriously become a raccoon or something like that.

        In addition, you misunderstood my statement about man as the “top of the food chain”. What I ought to have said was “top of the evolutionary chain.” That is what causes man to be over-glorified. I also forgot to mention that evolution decreases morality because it de-values human life. If we are mere animals, than why don’t we just treat each other like animals? If this is the position you take, that humans are merely the most highly evolved animals, than logically it would follow that you are a supporter of euthanasia, eugenics, and ethnic cleansing, right? OF COURSE YOU DO NOT. But that IS the logical end to philosophy resulting from evolution. (It is a by-product of the theory, I perfectly understand that evolution itself does not state this.)

        I am also very glad you reminded us all that “if even a single point in a theory can be disproved, the entire theory falls”. Darwin said something very similar himself about his own theory. Specifically, “If even one creature can be found that COULD NOT have evolved by a series of small, gradual changes, than my entire theory is false.”
        Where should I start? The extremely finely tuned explosive chemicals and process of a bombardier beetle? Or perhaps the “blood sponge” at the back of a giraffe’s head, which prevents it from collapsing every time it goes to drink water (and the blood rushes to its head)? Or even take the simple cell, Darwin’s “black box”, which has such complicated inner-workings that if even ONE function was impaired, the whole cell would perish.

        You see, none of those animals could have evolved by slow, gradual changes. I am fully confident that if Darwin were alive today, he would say himself that the theory of evolution is bunk.

        And as for your attack on religion as an evolutionary social construct, well, in some cases, religion certainly looks like that. However, in the case of Christianity (which I defend as Truth), it is more than mere religion. I have seen too many small, everyday miracles and answered prayers to account to coincidence, and while I may have no empirical proof of my God, I can assure by my personal testimony and the testimony of millions of others, that my God IS NOT DEAD!

        You may be laughing at my “delusion”, friend, but I, on the other hand, am grimly serious about yours. For if I am wrong, than I have lived a good, fulfilling life. If I am right, though, it means a bit more serious of consequences for you.

        PS- My rear-end does not have a mouth and cannot, in fact, speak. 🙂

      • Single-cell microorganisms reproduce at a rate substantially faster than all other life forms. Their reproductive rates allow for rapid evolution to counteract medical innovations, such as some older forms of antibiotics. If antibiotics were discovered without a proper working knowledge of evolution, most likely, the reason why those antibiotics stopped working would never have been figured out and duly abandoned …

        Humans are not the top of the evolutionary chain, you still haven’t figured out that evolution says something about that ~ evolution does not order species by such ranking. At best, evolution may rank species by longevity, if you were in a particular mindset to do so, but in which case, humans would be near the bottom of the ranking, having only been in our current form for about 200,000 years, according to the fossil record …

        So, Darwin would discount his own theory? You’re sounding more and more silly with each comment …

        Evolution is inherently corrosive to religion. That is not my attack, watch if you dare, these four videos will be an attack upon your faith … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plahbpT2fEo + https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoJyONmcGbM

        Ah, Pascal’s Wager gets another turn ~ that particular argument is a joke amongst philosophical circles, the basic rebuttal to it being, if you were born in a different part of the world to parents that weren’t Christian, would you have still been Christian? Think about it, why are there Muslims in Indonesia and Hindus in India ~ if you were born elsewhere and believe in the wrong god, would you be condemned because of where your god happened to place you … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOgW8y2jakw + https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WG__0_zSW0o

      • p-ray smith

        Well, first off, lets return to the evolutionary chain. Last I checked, it looks something like a tree, with humans at the top. There is a reason why humans have sent people to the moon and the dolphins haven’t: We are the most advanced beings on earth. Now, I of course attribute that to man being made in the image of God, but YOU would, by default, attribute our status as a result of evolution. End of debate there. (and, as I stated before, many of the secular philosophies I was decrying are a RESULT of evolution.)

        And yes, Darwin would discount his own theory. HE himself stated in “The Origin of Species” that the evidence of his day was not abundant enough to draw a good conclusion. He, in his book, reckoned that if in 100 years substantial evidence to back evolution was not found, his theory was effectively bunk. One of his major points was lack of fossil evidence for the “missing links”. He figured that more fossils being uncovered would give the evidence required. Well, it hasn’t. Sorry. (and I noticed you failed to respond to my evidence for the invalidity of evolution. I will count that as a concession, and therefore victory! 🙂 )

        Now, to be truthful I used Pascal’s Wager there rather flippantly. I understand it is one of the more crude philosophical arguments for God, but all the same I think it is a valid one. Now, as to the rebuttal for the argument, I would say yes, if I was born in India, I would probably be Hindu. But that does not change the Truth. The Truth about God is found in Scripture, God’s Holy Word, the Bible. Why some are born in one place, and some in another, I know not. But that does not somehow change the Truth.

      • A tree, not exactly … http://www.lucasbrouwers.nl/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Evo_large.gif

        Space flight, I would attribute that to technological advancement, more than biological evolution. Humans have been largely the same for the last 200,000 years, but the technological innovations you’re referring to are less than a century old ~ I’d say that shift was a cultural one, rather than a biological one, starting with agriculture leading to sedentary lifestyles and the development of writing.

        The origin of species came before DNA evidence proved it to be correct. Those transitional fossils you refer to have mostly been found for multiple species, sufficient to prove evolutionary theory correct.

        If you still think Pascal’s Wager is valid, I will laugh at you again and ask that you stop replying to my comments … I’m done trying to convince you of your idiocy.

      • Please stick to the post topic. The evolution discussion, however interesting it may be, belongs somewhere else. Thanks!

      • p-ray smith

        Sorry, I apologize for the mess! 🙂 I am just perturbed at why my friend here was unwilling to admit I have a brain and a mind that can critically analyze and think. But ah well! Thus endeth the debate. 🙂