What Can Really be Done about the Perversion of Science by Politics

Wendy Wagner

Aug. 18, 2008

One can quickly become depressed by the problems afflicting the science used for regulation of public health and the environment, and CPR bears a substantial share of responsibility for painting a grim picture of a world where politics prevails over science. In a Cambridge-published book, Rescuing Science from Politics, and an accompanying white paper that summarizes the book, along with a second white paper on the problems of scientific secrecy, CPR offers a wide-ranging diagnosis of what ails the science used for regulation. It ultimately concludes that there is far too much manipulation of scientific research by industry; that there are far too few incentives for agencies and even interest groups who are honest about the limits of science and remaining scientific uncertainties; and that many of the processes that purport to support and nourish regulatory science (like peer review; data access; and scientific freedom) are filled with gaps and holes that ultimately make the resulting science and scientists worse, rather than better off.

In a third white paper published just this year, CPR takes a self-consciously more constructive role by suggesting ways that some of these problems might be fixed. These proposals were vetted through a group of experts in a day-long conference. Most of the resulting recommendations attempt to readjust rules and processes to discourage the most egregious abuses – suppression of data; conflict of interest; and the corruption of the science advisor processes. CPR provides quite specific recommendations in its white paper, offering in some cases actual draft language for revised regulations or laws.
Certainly bloggers are welcome to take aim at these proposals for reform as well as CPR’s underlying diagnoses. If CPR’s research and recommendations are incomplete or off-base, then that is an important area for discussion.
But, assuming that CPR’s prior projects are roughly on track, what are the next best steps for redressing the systematic and growing problems in the use of science for regulation? There are at least two parts to this question. The first is substance. Among the many proposals for reform that CPR and others have advanced, which issues deserve the most immediate attention? What might a practical blueprint look like for the next two years to make progress on the issues of greatest importance? In an area such as this where so much is wrong, it is easy to become a purist and demand fixes for all problems at once or instead to simply become overwhelmed. Where should we begin in pressing for substantive reform?
Second, assuming that there is no “white knight” in the form of a sympathetic new president or administrator who will happily implement the CPR proposals without hesitation, what are the political mechanism(s) available to get these reforms taken seriously? Is the general public aware of the problems that CPR (and many others) have described? If not, can the public be made aware or “tipped” through certain salient events or other educational efforts? Or perhaps these issues are simply so esoteric and bound up in the bowels of the administrative state that the public hasn’t the time or patience to sort through the charges and, once they’ve done so, has no outlet for participating or engaging in the issues in any event. Of course, if this proves to be true, then it seems that the public’s absence from the scene will create an increasingly permissive legal environment where the rules will continue to be amended to become increasingly tolerant of bad science, the nontransparent use of science, and unaccountable decisions. In this scenario, can the scientific community serve as a kind of substitute source of broad, respected pressure on legislatures and agencies clamoring for some reform? Or are there pitfalls in the role that scientists might play that need to be considered and addressed first?

Of course, it could be that one needs to consider the second question first, in order to identify the best candidates for substantive reform (i.e., those that are easiest to move to the political agenda). That is certainly fair too. However you approach these questions, I anxiously await your sage insights.

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