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Undermining Science

Science Sidelined From Decision-Making

Political interference in science has penetrated deeply into the culture and practices of federal agencies. Systemic changes to agency practices implemented by the Bush Administration have weakened, and in some cases removed, the crucial role of science in agency determinations. Furthermore, agencies have put forth rules that may weaken public and environmental health protections by undermining the role of science in the regulatory process. These systemic problems cannot be resolved quickly or simply.

Ensuring independent science fully informs the decisions that affect human health and the environment will require commitment by President-elect [name], vigorous Congressional oversight, and persistent and energetic public engagement.  

Below are a few examples of problematic rules, regulations, and procedures that need to be addressed by the next administration.

Agency rule-making process

Typically, federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration issue regulations to intervene when they perceive a threat to public health and safety and to interpret and implement laws enacted by Congress. Agencies have the power to create these regulations through an established process which includes a time for public comment.

However, in early 2007 the president signed Executive Order (EO) 13422 which threatens to reduce agencies’ rulemaking power and further politicize their work. This EO injects political appointees into agency rule-making, cripples an agency's ability to issue helpful guidance to the public, and promotes free market concerns over the welfare of citizens.

The executive order:

  • Gives the White House more authority to manage the work of regulatory agencies, often with no public accountability;
  • Gives a political appointee called a Regulatory Policy Officer (RPO) at federal regulatory agencies more power to act as a gatekeepers for regulations and policy statements put out by agencies;
  • Gives RPOs the authority to block regulations, in effect ensuring that the agency carries out the priorities of the White House; and
  • Requires agencies to demonstrate that a new rule addresses a “market failure” or economic need instead of a threat to public health and safety or the environment.

The new executive order would entrench political appointees even more deeply inside federal scientific agencies where they could more easily prevent inconvenient science from ever seeing the light of day. This new directive effectively gives the White House the power to block new public health and safety rules, even those mandated by Congress, disrupting the checks and balances upon which our government was founded.

Good government and a functioning democracy require that independent science informs public policy decisions. The thousands of scientists employed by the federal government represent a tremendous resource. Without access to the best available science on climate change and other issues, the public’s understanding will suffer, and our leaders will be unable to make fully informed decisions about our health, safety, and environment.

Endangered Species Protections

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies that execute projects such as dam building, oil exploration, and logging are required to first consult with biologists to ensure the project won’t harm an endangered species. These consultations typically lead to minor adjustments to the planned action to lessen the anticipated impacts, and also help identify projects with particularly severe or complicated impacts that need to be mitigated.

In August 2008, the Department of the Interior proposed a rule that would allow agencies to decide for themselves whether protected species would be threatened by agency projects. Many of these agencies do not have significant biological expertise or resources to conduct an adequate evaluation. Allowing these agencies, whose mandates often come into direct conflict with the needs of imperiled species, to oversee their own actions will seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness. 

This proposed rule dangerously minimizes the role of the expert scientists at FWS and NMFS, narrowly limits the scope of science used in consultation, and opens the door to increased conflicts of interest, delay, and manipulation of science.  What’s more, in order to speed up the rulemaking process the Interior Department limited the public comment period and reviewed the 300,000 comments they did receive in only 32 hours.

The United States has invested heavily in the biological expertise of FWS and NMFS, and this wealth of scientific knowledge should be utilized to make sound decisions on the impacts of proposed federal actions.

Hazardous Chemical Assessments

The EPA established the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database as a single source of up-to-date, high-quality scientific information on human health risks related to chemical exposure. However, in April 2008 EPA altered the process to assess hazardous chemical giving polluting federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, multiple opportunities to influence IRIS listings or demand unreasonable degrees of scientific certainty before a listing can move forward. This review system can cause chemicals to remain stuck in the IRIS review process for upwards of six years. Furthermore, the new process allows for much of the much of the inter-agency review to occur behind closed doors.

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