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An uneasy balance

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  1. An uneasy balance Science advising in the federal government and the politicization of science Karen F. Greif, Dept of Biology

  2. Challenges in science policy-making • Rapid technological changes that create novel issues • Complex technologies that are difficult for non-scientists to understand • Concerns that consequences of decisions may be irreversible (Pandora’s box?) • Public worries about threats to health and safety • New developments that challenge deeply held social, ethical and religious values

  3. Scientific input in decision-making • “Policy for science”: federal funding for scientific research • Determines directions of research • “Science for policy”: science advising • Federal advisory committees • Congressional testimony and advice • Lobbying

  4. Science Advising in the Executive Branch • Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (unfilled in the Bush administration) • Director of the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) : John Marburger • National Science and Technology Council • President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) • President’s Council on Bioethics • Cabinet Directors and Administrators

  5. Does advising work in the Executive Branch? • Depends on the interest of the President • Without the “ear” of the President, no advisor will be effective • Since advisors are chosen to reflect Administration ideology, is advice balanced? • Delays in filling positions • Over 500 President-appointed senior level appointments overall! • Rigorous background checks • Requirements for Senate confirmation • Low salaries

  6. Science and Congress • Budget decisions (Policy for science) • Legislation on science-informed issues With advice from • Congressional staffers or outside experts • Government support agencies: • Government Accountability Office (GAO) • Office of Technology Assessment (OTA, (closed 1995)) • Independent organizations • National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Science (NAS, NAE, IOM) • Brookings Inst., Heritage Fdn., Cato Inst., etc (all with political agendas)

  7. Federal Agencies • Role is to create functional policy in response to new laws • For the biological sciences: DHHS (includes the NIH, FDA, CDC); National Science Foundation (NSF); Dept. of Agriculture; EPA; DOD (bioterrorism policy); Dept. of the Interior (FWS), etc • Limited autonomy and strongly influenced by Administration agendas. Congress can block activities by limiting budgets.

  8. Advisory Committees and FACA • Hundreds of standing committees focus on science and technology issues • Ad-hoc committees may be established on new topics • The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA; 1972) • Limits numbers of committees • Requires “transparency” in deliberations • Mandates that committee membership be “balanced” with representatives of accomplishment and expertise

  9. What is a good policy? • An effective policy should be cost-effective and fair, place limited demands on government, and provide assurance to the public that its goals will be met. • An effective policy may represent a compromise between competing viewpoints.

  10. Science and Politics • From the scientists’ perspective: policy making should involve careful consideration of scientific data and result in policies that are in line with the findings and recommendations of science. However, scientific data are rarely “complete” and some degree of uncertainty is inevitable. • From the politicians’ viewpoint: science is one piece of input in the political process and may be trumped by political values and necessities. If scientists cannot provide clear answers, then their advice is of limited value.

  11. The selective use of science • If the data do not support an Administration’s position: • order additional studies (delay, delay…) • claim that the data are based on poor research • discredit the scientists who conducted the work • claim that the data are biased • ignore the data

  12. Skewing federal advisory committees • Don’t empanel anyone (no committee, no conflicts) • Claim that any scientist receiving federal research support is “tainted” by an agenda to gain additional funding (limits expertise) • Don’t appoint committee members who hold opinions that differ from that of an Administration (litmus tests)

  13. Some historical examples • Pres. Richard Nixon threw all science advising out of the White House because he objected to “left-leaning” scientists who made recommendations against his own projects. Congress mandated the establishment of the OSTP in 1976 in response. • Pres. Ronald Reagan failed to fill many critical science advisory positions to block enforcement of regulations unpopular with his Administration • Many conservatives claim that Pres. Bill Clinton stacked his advisory committees with “pro-regulatory” scientists

  14. Pres. George W. Bush and a new level of politicization of science? • The failure to reappoint two members of the President’s Council on Bioethics who supported human cloning and stem cell research • Claims of political “litmus tests” for candidates for science advisory committees • Suppression of portions of reports on global warming and other sensitive issues • Manipulation of agency informational websites (CDC and reproductive health) • Blocking the World Health Organization from directly approaching scientists to serve on advisory committees (Director of DHHS must now nominate individuals)

  15. What can be done? • Improve science advising for Congress to reduce the dominance of the Executive Branch (re-establish the OTA) • Regularize science advising in the Executive Branch by supporting changes in the approval process • Insulate committees from ideology, but permit differing interpretations • Involve the public more in deliberations

  16. Return to Summary of Brown Bag Discussion