Science in Government Decision-Making

"…The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do nothing…"
- Christine Todd Whitman, EPA Administrator (2001-2003)

Regulatory and programmatic decisions made by government officials affect public health. Federal and state agencies have substantial discretion in administering statutes that seek protection of human health, among them the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and others. In implementing these statutes, the public expects agencies to rely on the best available scientific information. In addition to the results of scientific review, agencies must also take into account “public comment” on proposed regulations, and various stakeholder processes—including formal advisory committees—often influence agency decisions. Some agencies and some Administratons have made an effort to take more consistent approaches to the process of generating and interpreting relevant science, and integrating the evidence with broader societal goals. Scientists have been more vocal about uses and misuses of science in public policy during the tenure of the Bush Administration than during any other period in history. Their concern has focused on actions by individual agencies, and on initiatives that affect government decision-making more broadly, including:

Federal Advisory Committees.  Federal Advisory Committees play an important role in science policy decision-making. Scientists have been outspoken in their objections to appointments of individuals better known for their allegiance to special interests than for their scientific qualifications.

Information Quality Act. The Information Quality Act, sometimes referred to as the "Data Quality Act" (DQA) is an obscure law passed in 2000 that allows anyone to challenge reports, pamphlets, studies and other information disseminated by the government. Under DQA, parties may petition an agency to stop disseminating information that they claim does not meet data quality standards. DQA could have significant adverse consequences for science and researchers, for government regulatory programs, and for the public.

Peer Review Guidelines. Soon after they were proposed in 2003 by the Office of Management and Budget, scientists raised concern that guidelines for peer review of science relevant to regulatory decisions were redundant, restrictive and would lead to unnecessary delay in decision-making.

Scholarship. Theoretical and practical frameworks attempt to manage the interface between science and politics in government decision-making. Research and reflection grounded in different disciplines can inform ongoing efforts to promote transparency and effective use of science to protect public health.

Selected resources.

RELATED PROGRAM: SKAPP's Scientists in Government Project is a two-year project whose goal is to promote and shape the public discussion about the rights and responsibilities of government scientists, as part of the larger effort to ensure that government uses the best science to protect and promote the health and well-being of Americans. In order to achieve this goal, we will collect and analyze data on the role and functioning of scientists employed by government agencies; produce a series of reports and policy proposals for future policymakers and government leaders; and communicate the findings and proposals in a manner that facilitates their use by policymakers.