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Science Policy in Crisis – The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology

November 19, 2014

A story hit my facebook account today regarding recent activity in the US House of Representatives about legislation that would govern who and who could not participate in the deliberations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. Most of the posts referenced a Slate article that made the following claims:

“H.R. 1422, which passed 229-191, would shake up the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, placing restrictions on those pesky scientists and creating room for experts with overt financial ties to the industries affected by EPA regulations.”

and

“In what might be the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing, the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest.”

So, when I saw these posts and read the Slate post, I went and looked up the bill. The specific sections of the bill refer to who can be a member of the EPA SAB and when those individuals can participate in the activities of the board. I have copied the relevant passages below but you can see the text of the proposed bill here (the passages the Slate article concentrates on are in bold):

2) Each member of the Board shall be qualified by education, training, and experience to evaluate scientific and technical information on matters referred to the Board under this section. The Administrator shall select Board members from nominations received as described in paragraph (3) and shall ensure that—

(A) the scientific and technical points of view represented on and the functions to be performed by the Board are fairly balanced among the members of the Board;

(B) at least ten percent of the membership of the Board are from State, local, or tribal governments;

(C) persons with substantial and relevant expertise are not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or representation of entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities, so long as that interest is fully disclosed to the Administrator and the public and appointment to the Board complies with section 208 of title 18, United States Code;

(D) in the case of a Board advisory activity on a particular matter involving a specific party, no Board member having an interest in the specific party shall participate in that activity;

(E) Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work;

(F) Board members shall be designated as special Government employees; and

(G) no federally registered lobbyist is appointed to the Board.

So, the Slate post is reasonably accurate in that this language opens up the membership of the board to those people who have financial interests in the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency while restricting the advisory activities of Board members expressly when they have expertise on a particular issue. This seems to the scientific community like an odd move for a Board that advises an agency whose mission is “to protect human health and the environment,” and whose purpose is:

“…to ensure that:

How can an agency charged with basing its actions on “the best available scientific information” ignore the advice of experts?

Perhaps a hint can be found in the make-up of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Just the other day in my Ecology of Food class we talked about lobbyists and why Congress needs them and I had them look at the professional backgrounds of the members of the Science, Space, and Technology committee. Here is what we found:

House Committee on SST

Even if we include medical doctors and nurses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, only 5 out of 40 (12.5 %) of the members could be considered scientists. This is a really high proportion compared to the entire combined House and Senate where only 9 of 535 (1.68%) members are scientists. If we broaden that to include medical professionals, the number increases to 34 (6.4%). But our nation’s governing body is woefully short of scientific expertise given the increasingly important role of science and technology in society. No wonder science policy seems so messed up at times. Which is part of why our legislators rely on lobbyists: lobbyists presumably know more about the issue at hand than the congressperson. The problem with lobbyists is that they, by definition, have an agenda they are pushing and that agenda may include accurate science or it may not. In many cases, the science is warped to serve the agenda rather than the science informing the decision made about the agenda.

So, what can be done.

1. On the low end of commitment, write letters to your Representatives and Senators in the well-reasoned and logical way you have been trained about the science-related legislation going through the House and Senate.

2. On the opposite extreme, run for office. Vernon Ehlers, Rush Holt and Bill Foster are three physicists who did it. You will probably have to stop doing whatever you are currently doing as running for office is a full-time job. But you have excellent skills for solving complex problems in rational, logical and thoughtful ways. The nation needs these characteristics in their leaders.

3. Apply for a AAAS Policy Fellowship that will involve you in the very policy decisions I am complaining about. If that seems too scary, Apply for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program that trains scientists to become better communicators of science with the goal of facilitating change.

4. Write a blog that applies your critical thinking skills to legislation snaking its way through Congress. And write more often than I do so you build a good readership so you can reach a wide audience. Post it to your facebook and other social media outlets so it reaches a wider audience.

5. If you are an educator, don’t be afraid to talk about the policy implications of your science in courses. Academic freedom affords us the ability to do this and we should be training an educated class of students who can apply their knowledge and critical thinking skills to real problems. We should be training thoughtful, responsible citizens.

6. Work on the campaigns of candidates that you know pay attention to science even if they are not scientists themselves.

I am sure that there are more things you could do but this list is a start.

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