After Bush, Restoring Science to Environmental Policy

The Bush administration has been widely criticized for placing politics over science when it comes to environmental policy-making. The next president must act to reverse that trend.

Over the 7½ years of the Bush administration, it’s hard to name a major U.S. government regulatory agency that hasn’t seen some type of scandal involving science. From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we’ve heard repeated complaints from government scientists who say their work on environmental issues has been inappropriately edited by political appointees, that they themselves have been muzzled, and that their agencies have put out rank misinformation to the public.

To get a sense of just how extensive such problems have been, consider the findings of a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which sought to survey federally employed climate researchers across several agencies. Almost half of the 300-odd survey respondents felt pressured to eliminate words like “climate change” or “global warming” from documents or communications; a similar number perceived inappropriate changes to their work that altered its scientific meaning.

And that’s just climate scientists. Surveys of researchers at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service — whose work underlies implementation of the Endangered Species Act — found similar complaints. And recently, when unionized Environmental Protection Agency scientists backed out of their cooperation agreement with the agency’s political leadership, one cited reason was that lately the agency has ignored “its own Principles of Scientific Integrity whenever political direction from other federal entities or private sector interests so direct.”

It will fall to the next president to repair the relationship between government-employed scientists and the nation’s political leadership. And since most of the assaults on science during the Bush administration have occurred at pressure points where scientific information feeds into the regulatory process, the next administration must strive more broadly to bolster the role of science in environmental and other types of agency decision-making, so that the best available information once again drives policy.

Both major presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, appear to take this matter seriously. Obama, who has accused the Bush Administration of ignoring or distorting data to shape its decisions on science-related issues, has said his policies would be based on “evidence and facts.” As for McCain, in his role as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, he has eviscerated the Bush administration on matters of science. In one particularly sharp exchange in 2005, McCain upbraided an administration representative for failing to produce a required government report on global warming.

So assuming the next president aims not only to restore scientific integrity to the federal government, but also to restore morale and functionality at places like the Environmental Protection Agency, here’s a brief overview of some of the types of changes that need to be implemented.

Let’s begin where the Bush science scandals themselves did — with scientific advisory committees to federal agencies. As early as 2002, complaints began to emerge suggesting these little known expert bodies, which have been dubbed the “Fifth Branch” of American government and which advise agencies on anything from the dangers of various environmental chemicals to the risks of particulate air pollution, were being tilted politically to favor the interests of the administration’s supporters and allies. To name just one highly publicized example, in 2002 the Bush administration shook up the membership of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel that advises the agency on how to protect children from lead poisoning. The administration named to the panel several scientists with industry connections, who could be expected to oppose stronger protective standards.

To address cases like this, the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs such committees, must be revised and more strictly enforced. A 1970s “good government” statute designed to ensure openness, balance, and transparency, of late FACA has been repeatedly circumvented through the formation of committees not subject to it — the now-infamous Bush-Cheney energy task force being a prime example. And as Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, notes, “The problem is not just that they put these panels together outside of FACA, outside of that statutory protection.” Additional issues arise when it comes to ensuring that advisory committees formed under FACA aren’t rife with conflicts of interest. The law allows the granting of “waivers” that let potentially conflicted scientists serve anyway, and this has been widely abused. “The disclosures are late, never publicized, and conflicts are waived all the time,” notes Steinzor.

While the next administration cannot itself reform FACA, it can ask Congress to do so. Meanwhile, a new administration could pledge that all of its advisory committees will be formed under FACA and that any conflict-of-interest waivers will be made public (or not made at all).

To ensure the proper translation of science into environmental decision-making, the next president must reconsider the use of the Data Quality Act, a bite-sized piece of legislation slipped into a 2001 appropriations bill by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and which, as interpreted by the Bush administration, has grown into a handy device for misusing science to upend regulation. The act allows interested parties to file complaints whenever the government “disseminates” scientific information they find objectionable. This makes it a key tool for gumming up the regulatory works by questioning the validity of government science — an increasingly common industry tactic employed on issues ranging from climate change to the regulation of mercury pollution.

And it’s not just the Data Quality Act itself: In a legally dubious move, the administration has used the act as the foundation for an unprecedented government-wide system of peer review for information that feeds into regulatory decision-making. Peer review sounds like a good thing — until you canvass the science world’s objections to this particular form of it. In essence, the new peer review system turns out to be more about slowing down government action than ensuring scientific accuracy. And it has already impaired agency function, notes George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels, author of the new book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford, 2008).

For example, Michaels cites the National Toxicology Program’s “Report on Carcinogens,” which is supposed to be released every two years. But the last such report — the 11th Report on Carcinogens — appeared in January of 2005, meaning the next edition is already more than a year late. If you examine the review process for that report, it’s clear the new peer review rules are to blame.

The next administration, then, ought to re-evaluate the Data Quality Act and government-wide peer review system with the following principle in mind: When it comes to using science to support regulatory decision-making, the perfect can easily become the enemy of the good. Government agencies rarely have ideal data or studies at their disposal; much of the information they rely upon cannot, by its very nature, undergo rigorous academic peer review. But agencies can rarely wait for better information to take action — because if they do, more people (or more endangered species) might be harmed. The Data Quality Act and peer review system push us in the direction of ever-more scrutiny of science that might be used to support government regulation, when what we actually need is the opposite: Federal agencies that are limber, less burdened, more free to act promptly in the public interest.

At the same time, the next president and his cabinet officials must strive to ensure that scientists working at these federal agencies not only get treated fairly, but can feel confident their work gets taken seriously and plays the proper role in government decision-making. This is not merely a question of propriety, but one of morale. After all, what scientist would want to work for an agency where, to use a recent example from the Fish and Wildlife Service, a political appointee named Julie MacDonald was, according to the Interior Department’s inspector general, “heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports from the field”?

To help prevent such abuse, the next administration should put in place a disclosure system whereby agency science is made public as soon as the scientists are finished with it — not after the political appointees take a red pen to it. The administration should also pledge to address the many other cases we’ve seen in recent years in which political appointees and government scientists have clashed — for instance, cases where scientists have been denied the ability to speak to the media, or have seen press releases about their research heavily edited, or not released at all. What our environmental regulatory system truly needs is more independence from political sectors of the executive branch, so scientists and other professionals can do their jobs without worrying about who might be offended or how their actions play politically.

When it comes to the role of science in environmental policy, then, the next administration should seek to solve the problems of the past by embracing two broad principles for the future. First, agencies must remain free to use the best science available to do their jobs promptly and effectively, rather than having to endlessly defend that science and have it repeatedly vetted. And second: Political appointees need to back off and let federal agency scientists — and agency professionals more generally — do their jobs with integrity and independence.

We need science in government more than ever before. Because the Bush administration represented such a big step backward in this arena, the next administration must take at least two steps forward just to catch up.