When "Sound Science" Isn't

August 16, 2013 | 1:07 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”George Orwell

When I cited that quotation while speaking to a group of students last year, many of them had a hard time grasping what I was getting at. So let me be clear. Orwell, in his classic dystopian novel, 1984, described what it was like to live under a government that believed it could change facts, and make citizens believe them. It could, for example, proclaim that two plus two equaled five, and that would become the new reality.

I am in no way implying that we currently live in a country where we lack the freedom to state what is true. But certainly what I am finding in Washington these days is that some members of Congress are putting forward proposals whose stated goals contradict what their proposals actually would do. These same members are twisting language, so that words like “transparency” and “accountability” overlay an agenda that uses these honorable words to do the dishonorable bidding of wealthy special interests that want to escape legitimate scrutiny and regulation.

Rep. Fincher’s House-passed bill misleads

There is no better illustration of this disconnect than Rep. Stephen Fincher’s (TN) “Sound Science” legislation, H.R. 1287.

The bill is one of thousands introduced in both chambers of Congress each year. But this bill actually was passed by the House as a provision of its farm bill.

Federal agencies, like the FDA, would in fact find it more difficult to use sound science to protect the public. Photo: Flickr user thisisbossi

The “Sound Science” bill has been cleverly messaged as promoting Scientific Integrity. The bill’s sponsors actually cited President Obama’s memorandum directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to require federal agencies to restore scientific integrity to government decision making. And in discussing the bill, the bill’s sponsors have gone even farther, citing UCS’s careful and exhaustive evaluations of agency scientific integrity policies, to make their case. Indeed, in a radio talk a few weeks ago, Rep. Fincher specifically cited UCS’s critique of scientific integrity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help sell the bill. Rep. Fincher did not state outright that UCS supports the bill, but he gave that erroneous impression.

An antithesis of scientific integrity

In reality, the “Sound Science” bill would produce the antithesis of scientific integrity. It would make it nearly impossible for federal agencies to use science to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

Both UCS and OSTP interpret the term “scientific integrity” in the same way. Its core values include respect for evidence-based unbiased science at federal agencies, and ensuring that federal scientists are able to do their work without fear of political or corporate interference. It means that federal scientists do not fear retaliation if they speak out when information is being censored or manipulated. It respects the right of agency scientists to have the “last review” of any public information that relies primarily on their research.  Scientific integrity recognizes that scientists have the right to discuss their findings with the public and with Congress.

But  Rep.  Fincher’s proposal would damage scientific integrity. His legislation establishes clever traps—a series of procedural hurdles—that would make agency science subject to endless challenges by special interests that do not want to see agency regulations move forward.

Worse, his proposal goes way beyond  agency regulations. It would affect virtually anything an agency does, including “listing, labeling, or other identification of a substance, product or activity as hazardous or creating risk to human health, safety or the environment,” or any document that interprets “a statutory or regulatory issue.”

And if an agency doesn’t follow these procedures? It can’t act. If it tries to act, this bill gives a judge the right to override whatever policy decision the agency made.

How does this work in the real world? Well, let’s take an agency policy that Rep. Fincher has criticized and which he has claimed his bill would address—attempts by FDA to review the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed, “without a sound scientific basis.” (Rep. Fincher’s worries largely are unfounded. The FDA has shown little enthusiasm for regulating the routine use of antibiotics in livestock.)

Procedures will block agencies

Science is on the side of much more stringent regulation. Our UCS Food and Environment program, citing substantial scientific evidence, has warned that the routine use of antibiotics in livestock is a major factor in antibiotic resistance in humans, a huge and growing public health problem.

But if the “Sound Science” bill became law, it would be even more difficult for the FDA to try to curb the dangerous overuse of these antibiotics in our livestock, and hence in our food supply. Big agriculture, aided by pharmaceutical manufacturers, could block regulation by subjecting the agency’s science to nearly infinite rounds of scrutiny, specifically to achieve “paralysis by analysis.” They would have free rein to claim that the science was not certain, that the agency had not looked at every study, or plumbed each and every avenue of research, no matter how obscure or even tangentially relevant. And those special interests could challenge the agency in court, and likely win.

This is not a new tactic, for decades, the tobacco industry kept regulation at bay by claiming that not all the facts were in that could absolutely link tobacco use to cancer. Because of litigation around tobacco, the public has access to an entire library of incriminating documents, including strategy memos that make clear that casting doubt on science has long been a technique of corporate interests. However, the technique of “paralysis by analysis” should not get even more help from our elected officials.

Rep. Fincher may call the bill “Sound Science” but that doesn’t make it so. UCS and our reform-minded colleagues will be doing all we can to make sure this provision never makes it into law.