Getting from Here to There(s)

Wendy Wagner

Aug. 23, 2008

As the moderator of this blog, I am the designated devil’s advocate. Read together, Rena’s and John’s entries make my assignment easy. Both write upbeat and insightful entries about their preferred approaches for the future, but they reach diametrically opposite conclusions. John suggests that the best solution for the manipulation of regulatory science is to base environmental policy on as little science as possible (or at least to be more self-conscious about whether we really need science to make environmental policy). Rena, by contrast, argues cheerfully that the answer lies in the scientific community. “You have only to look at” the work of a respected EPA Science Advisory Board – the CASAC (Clean Air Science Advisory Committee)” to see how the problems with regulatory science are being solved. “Scientists,” she concludes, “must simply step up to the challenge.”


So – at the big picture level -- who is right? Do we need less or more science for environmental regulation? Or does it depend on the regulatory program?


And, assuming both Rena and John can be right at the same time, how do we get there from here? I have no doubt that engaging more scientists in the daily work of regulation would be a good thing, but where are they going to come from? Surely our academic scientists need funding to engage in these issues. Peer review of regulatory science is not the kind of work that is rewarded with tenure, research grants, or scientific fame. But, if we need money to support more independent scientists, doesn’t that take us back to raw, ugly Politics?


In a similar vein, if we self-consciously try to minimize our dependence on science a la the precautionary principle, how will this work in practice? Presumably such a move requires some significant legislative and regulatory amendments. What is the best plan for replacing science-intensive programs with science-light programs? And there again, aren’t we at the mercy of Politics? Indeed, how do we get the public to support such an effort when opponents will be quick to denigrate it as “anti-science?”

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