Maybe if it had said something like—Greater Efforts by Congress to Protect the Public Interest. Or—Ensuring that Public Health, Safety and Environmental Protections Take Priority. Then I could be excited. But in reading through this very lengthy policy document, it is a resurfacing of a set of bad ideas. These proposals would radically change the process of creating public health, safety, environment and consumer protections, apparently with one goal in mind—delay. Instead of a “Better Way”, it should have been titled “An Endless Delay.”
There are real reforms we could undertake to make science-based regulations more effective and more efficient. We should do regulatory review to streamline agency actions. There are important improvements to be made in the ability of the public to comment and influence policy, primarily through reducing the influence of high-powered industries. The process by which science informs agency decisions can be improved, through stronger scientific integrity policies, stronger requirements for independent peer review, disclosure of conflicts of interest, and greater public access to information. And yes, the APA could likely be strengthened as well. But the starting premise for such reforms should be the public interest and the need to provide stronger protections for public health, safety and the environment. I hope the Speaker reaches for these types of reforms, rather than the recipes for delay outlined in the current proposal.]]>
That means, in effect, we don’t know how safe many of the products we use every day are for the workers who make them, the people who transport them, and the consumers who use them. We just don’t know. But shouldn’t we, the public, have the right to more and better information in a democracy?
Do you have good information about even basic safety issues regarding chemicals? Here is a simple quiz just to help answer that question for yourself. Perhaps we can easily answer all the questions, but think about the choices people make every day and how little information they have to go on. More to the point, in our society most people likely believe that dangerous materials are carefully managed to ensure children, vulnerable populations, and all of us are kept safe. But they would be wrong…
But now there is a chance to make things a lot better. New versions of chemical safety legislation have passed the House and Senate. Neither version is really sufficient to protect the American public. But taking the best of both bills might give us a chance for real reform.
The plants that produce most of those chemicals are surrounded by what are often called “fenceline” communities, people who live near the plants and the transportation infrastructure that is connected to those facilities. While you might think that people moved into an area near the plants and chose to live nearby, the opposite is often true—the community was there and the plants located or grew around the community. Fenceline communities are almost always poor, and usually people of color. They also have documented high rates of public health problems such as asthma, cancer and other diseases—and fewer resources to deal with the incredible challenges that they face. The rules that are supposed to reduce the risks for fenceline communities and the workers in chemical facilities have not been updated in 25 years, though they are under consideration now. The process for updating the rules is moving very slowly. The EPA needs to get a move on.
There are about 30,000 chemical accidents reported every year, resulting in more than 1000 deaths. The number of accidents is known to be under-reported. Of course there are some very high profile accidents, such as in the West, TX or Geismar, LA plants, which resulted in multiple deaths. Some of these are investigated by the federal Chemical Safety Board. But the results seem to get much less attention than, say, an airline accident investigation. We know that the public expects better. Our elected officials need to hear that we expect more.
It is critically important to push for better rules that really protect public health and safety, and do so for all of us. But know too that there is a powerful lobby, led by the American Chemistry Council, that is fighting every step of the way to keep the rules weak. Our report found that the ACC spends about $11 million per year in lobbying to reduce regulation, which means reducing public health and safety, worker, and environmental protections. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that all companies in the industry want to weaken the rules. But the major industry lobbying groups sure seem to continually send that message.
So take the quiz (and do well!) but more importantly—take action! Let our representatives know that we need strong chemical safety laws and the rules that implement them.]]>
There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to—get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less—a slower track, where they do well. One of—one of the briefs pointed out that—that most of the—most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas…
They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re—that they’re being pushed ahead in—in classes that are too—too fast for them.
I am sure there are people who “contend” such things. But one of them should not be a Supreme Court justice. Here are my observations in brief, from my student days in three universities, my teaching appointments in two, as well as my time as an academic dean:
Justice Scalia is just plain wrong.
Fortunately, the lawyer for the University of Texas got it right in his response:
This Court heard and rejected that argument, with respect, Justice Scalia, in the Grutter case, a case that our opponents haven’t asked this Court to overrule. If you look at the academic performance of holistic minority admits versus the top 10 percent admits, over time, they—they fare better.
And, frankly, I don’t think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools. I think what experience shows, at Texas, California, and Michigan, is that now is not the time and this is not the case to roll back student body diversity in America.
If you’re on Twitter, check out are some of the scientist voices who are spotlighting this issue this on social media, such as Dr. Isler, Dr. Washington, and via the hashtag #BlackandSTEM.]]>
For months, through repeated interviews with NOAA staff and then a subpoena, the chairman has attempted to manufacture controversy around the study, first by willfully misrepresenting scientists’ research methods and then changing course to wrongfully claim the study was “rushed” to publication. A couple of weeks ago, the chairman said he wanted to depose NOAA staff, then rescinded his request to do so.
Early last week, Chairman Smith’s efforts garnered another strongly worded response from the Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. And then on Friday, November 20, NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan wrote to Chairman Smith in response to his letters to the Secretary of Commerce of November 13 and 18. “I have not or will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me,” she wrote.
Dr. Sullivan’s letter clarified the timeline and the facts concerning this hyper-aggressive and constantly shifting investigation by the Chairman. It was notable to me that Dr. Sullivan left the politics to the politicians, and focused on the science process, including responsiveness to the committee’s requests. I urge readers to read the full letter. Here, I try to capture the essence.
The back and forth between the Chairman and NOAA concerning this one paper, Karl et al. 2015, has been going on since the paper was published last June with back and forth between the Chairman’s staff and the agency every month. NOAA has responded with in-person briefings by scientists and offers of additional meetings, as well as detailed written responses to questions.
The data upon which the paper is based has been publicly available since July of 2014. The analysis of ocean temperature measurement calibrations was also based on published work in 2013 and 2014.
The paper at the center of this whole kerfuffle was submitted for publication in December 2014 and published in June 2015. From my experience in publishing papers in Science, as well as a peer reviewer for the journal from time to time, that isn’t an unusual timeline. A highly regarded publication that comes out weekly, manuscripts published in Science are short and report findings of broad interest.
Science usually asks for reviewers to comment within two weeks in my experience, but revisions may take longer and there may be two or more rounds of review and revision, as in this case according to the editor. It is common for reviewers to ask authors to clarify framing for the work, methodology and points in the interpretation, as well as include supplemental material in the online resources. But of course reviewers may comment on anything they like and the editors take all comments seriously.
NOAA’s response to Chairman Smith’s assertions
During this long drawn-out interaction, the Chairman has asserted without any evidence or analysis that NOAA scientists “altered the data”, that the data is “skewed and biased”, that the analysis was “politically correct” and most recently, that an unnamed whistleblower from within NOAA has claimed that the paper was “rushed to publication”. My colleagues Dr. Gretchen Goldman, and Michael Halpern questioned the veracity of these claims last week with links to relevant information.
In NOAA’s response, it is clear that the agency’s scientists proceeded with the study as other scientists would expect, starting with the data, exploring methodology, asking appropriate research questions (i.e., given more data, and better calibration between measurement methods, what does the time series of global surface temperatures tell us about the rates of change in temperature over the series of observations?). That is contrary to Chairman Smith’s assertion of a politically motivated study. Dr. Sullivan writes on pages 3 and 4:
In this case, NOAA has made the data and the analysis available to the Committee, the public, and the scientific community. The Committee has the raw data as well as the methodology that NOAA scientists used to analyze the data. Together these show that the decision to adjust the data was a scientific one. The article was peer-reviewed and published in a preeminent and independent scientific journal. If the Committee doubts the integrity of the study, it has the tools it needs to commission a competing scientific assessment.
The Chairman has also repeatedly claimed that NOAA has been unresponsive to his demands, and now threats of legal consequences. But Dr. Sullivan’s letter shows ongoing interactions and responsiveness to a changing set of demands and focus for Mr. Smith’s investigation. Dr. Sullivan writes that several times, offers to meet or requests to clarify the scope of what is wanted have been rebuffed or gone unanswered by the Chairman’s staff. And several times, Mr. Smith has claimed NOAA has been unresponsive even before reaching the deadline he set for a response.
Further, no claims of impropriety have been raised by anyone in the agency:
The Committee’s November 18 letter also refers to allegations by a whistleblower that the Karl study was rushed to publication. We note that the study was submitted to Science for consideration in December 2014, and Science made the decision to publish it in June 2015 after a rigorous evaluation and peer review. It is also worth noting that the data upon which the study relies was available publicly as early as July 2014. Nevertheless, we take any whistleblower allegations seriously and stand ready to work with the Committee, the Inspector General, or the NOAA scientific integrity review process to respond and evaluate these allegations appropriately. To date, NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer has received no allegations or inquiries on this matter.
Chilling science in a warming world
The most disturbing aspect of the ever more aggressive tactics that Rep. Smith is using to attack NOAA is the effect on scientists everywhere. To me, opening a congressional investigation complete with a subpoena into a single published paper is an effort to turn the process of scientific inquiry and into a legal and political process. If Mr. Smith is successful, it may not be peer reviewers’ comments that will help shape research publications, as much as legal strategies. That is not the way to foster the creativity and spirit of inquiry for American science, inside or outside federal agencies. But isn’t that fostering of science exactly what the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is supposed to do?
Of course then and now, investigations are couched in terms of protecting the public good. In 1947, HUAC was seeking to reveal “disloyalty and subversive activities”. Chairman of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith (R–TX) is seemingly only concerned about whether federal funds are used to influence public policy. But there is no news of Smith investigating other individuals, say for example climate contrarians, and their sources of funding in connection with expressing their views.
Mr. Smith has been very clear in expressing his views about global warming. And he has a bully pulpit to express those views. And I do mean bully—because I worry this latest investigation seems to be exactly that, an attempt to bully or intimidate scientists who disagree with him.
Conducting oversight is of course part of the Committee’s work, though oversight versus legislating seems to be an increasing part of recent Congresses. But what is concerning is the manner in which the chairman has orchestrated investigations. This isn’t the first time that Mr. Smith has launched an attack on science and individual scientists. He has targeted National Science Foundation grants, calling into question the value of research and suggesting that Congress play a role in deciding what individual grants are most scientifically promising.
He has targeted EPA science, with legislation like the Secret Science Reform Act or “investigative theater” hearings. And I have written previously about changes in the rules that give Chairman Smith subpoena power, and the chilling effect that may have on scientists expressing their views or engaging in controversial research topics. The HUAC was noted for its tactics, not just the resulting blacklisting of people working in the entertainment industry. Using subpoena power, pressuring witnesses, and drawing conclusions when someone refused or hesitated in answering were hallmark tactics.
My colleague Michael Halpern said it well. “Scientists have the same right as anyone to engage in the political process and express their beliefs without fear of being hauled before Congress for their views.” It is not the personal views of individual scientists that should be the focus of this Committee, it is how to foster the growth of a stronger, more independent, more vibrant American science enterprise to the benefit of the country.
So let’s ask some simple questions. Will connecting scientists with community organizations help to level the playing field so that their voices can be heard? Can scientist-citizens, working with non-scientist citizens, not only improve the ability of communities to participate in making public policy, but make those policies better?
The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS is exploring these questions with a diverse group of scientific and non-scientific organizations from around the United States. A series of online events will culminate in a September 26th town hall webcast discussion in Houston to hear about different experiences of connecting scientists and community groups.
We don’t just need to learn from success stories. We need to hear about the barriers, the challenges, the false starts, and sometimes failures of attempts to connect. And, we don’t want to just preach to the choir. We want scientists who have never done this type of inclusive research, and community members who are hesitant to trust the scientific establishment, to join in the conversation and voice their concerns and suggest ways to move forward. That’s how we, collectively, can learn about how to continue to grow opportunities for connections that really work.
We know that in building scientist-community partnerships, listening to one another is a big part of challenge. As a scientist, truly connecting at a local level is not a matter of giving a talk or presenting to a broader audience. It is actively listening and trying to understand what people in the community experience. What they observe. What they need to overcome to have their voices heard. And it is not just how my research per se might be helpful, but how bringing my experience as a scientist to the table might be relevant.
I am a marine ecologist with expertise in population dynamics. But I have spent much of my career looking at data, and working on science advice for environmental regulations. That means I bring those skills to a partnership, not just research results in the marine environment.
At the same time, listening to community organizers working for environmental justice fascinates me. I need to hear about the challenges they confront and the inspiring work that they do to improve the health and safety of communities on the fencelines of truly scary polluted areas in places like Houston. I can start to help by trying to understand their perspective. Then ask, how is it that I can play a role in elevating their voices? Is it looking at data, or thinking about how to collect new data? Or is it navigating the regulatory process? Or raising awareness among my fellow scientists? But I need to remember to ask—and listen, not assert that I know everything. In other words, build a partnership.
Over the next several weeks, we have asked some of our partners to write about their experiences and perspectives as we lead up to our town hall forum. This series of blogs by community organizers and engaged scientists is intended to spark new thinking about how we can work together.
I continually hear from young scientists that they want to have an impact. They want to get out of the lab or from behind the computer. The opportunities to make a difference in the world, beyond the research that we do, are endless. And they are local. So watch this space. And join us in Houston and online in September.]]>
Every year, thousands of scientists in all disciplines take part in the process of advising our government concerning the current scientific evidence and the best interpretation of that evidence on issues ranging from clean air and water to worker safety, product safety, and environmental impacts, to name only a few. It is part of our chosen careers—part of our public service. I believe my service on advisory panels and committees, program or proposal reviews, and other activities is important and in many ways an honor, though I admit it’s a lot of work. But then, I also believe that the government should be in the business of protecting public health and safety and the environment. The government should protect the public interest and public-trust resources like our air, water, and oceans.
Today, the very process of bringing science into public policy is under a concerted and well-funded attack that may just succeed if we don’t raise the alarm and fight back. To understand what’s happening, consider how hard it is to argue against the principles of health and safety protections themselves. No politician wants to argue against clean air, or child safety. Indeed no politician wants to admit that he or she is undermining the role of science. Attacks on the process under the guise of reform, however, avoid such problems and largely evade notice. Those who advance this anti-regulatory agenda say they want greater accountability and transparency in the advisory process—both laudable goals. And the names of the bills similarly reflect those goals: The Secret Science Reform Act, the Regulatory Accountability Act, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, the Sound Science Act.
But just like shopping malls and housing developments—Quail Hollow, Partridge Run, Deer Meadow, Green Pastures—these bills are named for what they just destroyed.
With the exception of the Sound Science bill, not introduced in the current Congress, the bills named above have either already passed the House or soon will pass that chamber, and are now before the Senate. They employ four tactics that undermine the role of science: 1) replace agency judgement based on science and statutory criteria with a political judgement in Congress with no set criteria or timeline; 2) make procedural changes that make it virtually impossible to provide science advice in a timely manner; 3) restrict the types of science that agencies may rely on; and 4) change the composition and rules for advisory panels to give industry greater influence. Some of the bills use more than one of these tactics. And other attacks on public health, safety and environmental protections now contain much of the same language.
The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would require that any regulation with an annual impact of more than $100 million be positively affirmed by both houses of Congress within 70 days. If not, the regulation cannot go into force. Note the bill says nothing about benefits of a regulation, only costs. At the moment, both houses have been unable to agree on authorizing military action, immigration rules, transportation funding, and the list goes on.
Under current law, an agency must propose a regulation, take public comment multiple times, seek science advice, and justify the regulation based on the statutory requirements, the science, the costs and benefits, and other criteria as laid out in the law. The agency can and inevitably will be challenged in court, perhaps multiple times. I know this because I used to have a leading role in NOAA managing marine resources.
Under the REINS Act, none of that applies. Congress doesn’t need to justify the science basis for its decision and can’t be challenged on that basis. In fact, such a Congressional decision does not even need to be justified as meeting the intent of the law the regulation was proposed under in the first place! The standard of the REINS Act seems to be whether members, and their key influencers, like a particular regulation.
The same mechanism is now proposed to apply to listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act and may well appear in other legislation going forward. Separate from the REINS Act itself, a bill was proposed to create a Select Committee of House and Senate to do the same thing—impose congressional review of regulations.
In meeting their statutory mandates, agencies must use the best science available and go through an extensive public process laid out in the Administrative Procedure Act and other laws. By adding additional steps to that process, everything slows down and regulations are put in place more slowly. The Regulatory Accountability Act adds at least 70 new steps to the regulatory process, including special formal hearings on cost-benefit analyses that are structured to allow a cross-examination of the agency, not just public comment. The Sound Science Act requires all scientific findings to be subject to public comment, each time a new finding is considered in the advisory process. That could result in essentially an infinite round of public comment. And the Science Advisory Board Reform Act requires the Board to not only solicit public comment on the science (and it prohibits the placing of time limits on the comment process), but also to respond to every “significant” comment in writing, separate from agency response to comment on rule-making that is now required. This is a huge additional burden on the board and again is designed to slow down the process.
It may not seem like a big deal to introduce requirements that all data, methods and models used as a basis for regulation be publicly available, as called for in the Secret Science Reform Act. After all, the Union of Concerned Scientists consistently supports transparency in government (and business!).
As is often the case, however, the devil is in the details. The bill states that the EPA may not move forward with a regulation unless everything is publicly available. It goes on to state that nothing in the bill requires the waiver of existing confidentiality provisions for businesses, individual researchers, or institutions. In other words, EPA may not make anything public that isn’t already so. In many public health studies and other surveys, participants are assured their data will be held in confidence and only be published in summarized results. Businesses, too, hold rights to keep some information confidential as do individuals with intellectual property rights.
The net effect is that the EPA may not regulate unless they can make, for example, the raw data available from a public health study—but they are not allowed to make that data available, therefore they may not regulate. Catch-22.
Science advisory boards already include some scientists who work in industry, and some from the states and tribes. But, according to the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, not enough of them. Under the rationale of this proposed legislation, industry scientists are unfairly excluded simply because they may have financial conflicts of interest. On the other hand, academic scientists should not be allowed to talk about their own work, unless it is published already, and in the House bill, must not serve if they have held an EPA grant in the last three years because they would be biased in favor of the agency. This is the Alice in Wonderland version of conflict of interest—industry is objective but academia is conflicted. Conflict of interest and disclosure is a serious issue, but this is not a serious remedy to improve the process.
Further, the bill requires a set quota for state, local and tribal government representatives on the Board. But science advisory boards are never meant to be representative bodies. Members serve in their capacity as individual experts on the subject matter experts, not as representing specific interests. The emphasis should always be to solicit the best possible scientific advice, not to heed some formulaic requirement for representation of different entities.
There are undoubtedly improvements that can be made in the science advisory process and in science-based regulations. Disclosure of conflicts of interest, making agency work more transparent, encouraging more scientists to participate and making sure that we are preparing more scientists to engage in the public policy process more effectively are just some of the efforts that merit attention.
Do these bills do that? No. Can they be modified in order to make positive change? I think not, because they are based on the wrong premises. All of these proposals seem to come from starting premises that regulatory agencies and the scientists who work with them have some hidden agenda and that agencies over-reach their mandates and grab for control—and that industry needs to have more influence in the process.
Further, the bills focus extensively on cost-benefit analyses but say little about the benefits side. Sure, industry must bear some of the cost of public health, safety and environmental protections, because industry actions cause many of the potential impacts. But the benefits of cleaner air, water, better worker and public safety are the reasons for the laws in the first place. And they have been substantial. If anyone would like to experience what some of our country would be like without the Clean Air Act, visit Beijing.
Scientists and other concerned citizens need to fight off these attacks. Not to defend the status quo, but to call out and oppose proposals that don’t have the public interest as their goal. Elected officials need to hear from scientists and other constituents who believe that science-based public health and safety protections are a critical part of the work of government, and that advancing the role of independent science in the process is the best way to ensure these protections are based on the evidence, not political influence. Creating barriers to that science advice is the wrong way to go. Any of the proposals described above have the potential to do long-term damage to the country. We can’t allow that to happen in our democracy without mounting a strong public response.]]>
He did just that, and the acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, summarized the scientific evidence for the Governor. Zucker pointed out that there are significant risks and many unknowns regarding the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling and production using high volume hydraulic fracturing of shale resources. To quote from the New York State Department of Public Health report, “In assessing whether public health would be adequately protected from a complex activity such as high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), a guarantee of absolute safety is not required. However, a minimum, there must be sufficient information to understand what the likely public health risks will be. Currently, that information is insufficient.”
The Public Health department report outlines a set of risks from shale oil and gas development through high volume hydraulic fracturing, mirroring those noted in UCS workshop reports and recent publications. Our position has been that decisions should be based on scientific evidence and that baseline evaluation and comprehensive monitoring programs must be in place in order to make science-based decisions. It seems Governor Cuomo listened to the public health scientists in his state and agrees.
Some have criticized the Governor for taking time to make a decision. But isn’t that just what he should do with complex issues that will have consequences for the people of his state for generations to come? Whether one is considering the benefits (e.g., jobs, revenue) of shale oil and gas production in New York, or the risks to public health (e.g. air and water pollution, community impacts), once drilling proceeds those impacts are likely to last for decades. So, Mr. Cuomo waited for an expert review. And the review recommended caution until better information is available.
Certainly there is more to decisions on public policy than solely the scientific evidence. But, that evidence, or lack of sufficient evidence, is sometimes enough to give a clear path for decision-makers and the public. Filling the information gaps pointed out by Dr. Zucker is not an insurmountable task. But it will require industry and governments to be more forthcoming with data, and making solid efforts to research the impacts, rather than deny that they may even exist.
Where public health is concerned, we need to have solid scientific evidence for decision-making. Governor Cuomo’s path, asking the experts and heeding their advice, is just the right way to tackle decisions such as this one. He’s not a scientist – so he’s listening to the people who are.]]>
Now, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have dug even more deeply into the scientific literature on the public health effects of sugar. Their new website sugarscience.org is a great resource for understanding the scientific evidence on health impacts of added sugar. In reviewing over 8,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers from the medical literature, the UCSF team of experts makes clear the connection between the consumption of sugar, particularly added sugar, and heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes.
Sugarscience.org highlights that sugary beverages are a prime culprit in not only increasing American sugar consumption but also disease risk. A single can of soda per day increases the risk of heart disease by one third. One can of soda exceeds the American Heart Association recommendation for daily sugar consumption for men and is nearly twice the allowance for women and children. And sugar consumption is not just linked to obesity but to non-alcoholic liver disease, affecting 31% of adults and 13% of children in this country. One in five Americans over the age of 20 have metabolic syndrome with higher risk of diabetes, heart and liver disease.
But it isn’t just sugary beverages that are the problem. There is quite literally added sugar in almost all processed foods. The industry has argued that the body can’t distinguish added sugar from naturally occurring sugars in their products and that the impacts of the two sources of sugar can’t be distinguished. While it is true that the body breaks down all sugars into fructose and glucose, the impact of added sugar is clearly different from sugar naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, according to the scientific literature.
Overconsumption of sugar in American diets is not a simple matter of personal choice. From aggressive marketing to children to the ubiquitous availability of foods high in sugar in virtually every store, vending machine, food outlet and public venue, our choices are shaped and manipulated. But we as citizens can start to take back control or our food system. We can raise awareness by sharing resources such as sugarscience.org. And our Food Policy Toolkit is a guide to opportunities for citizens and scientists to help change the policies that encourage the overconsumption of sugar as well as unhealthy diets more broadly. Nationally, now is the time to push for action to reform our food policy across the board as several food policy experts have highlighted recently. So when you are shopping for food for your family, remember: if someone offers you a sweet deal, read the fine print.]]>
Before the op-ed went to press, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used the line again during a debate and implied that scientists should decide the future of fracking in his state rather than him.
The full op-ed is reprinted with permission below:
When an editorial board recently asked Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about climate change, he said he wasn’t a scientist. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott, both Republicans, have said the same thing. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said he wasn’t a scientist, too, when he faced questions about his administration editing documents about the risks of hydraulic fracturing. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, of the GOP, said he wasn’t an evolutionary biologist when asked about teaching established science in schools.
Of course, very few politicians are actually scientists. And while having more scientists in elected office may seem like an appealing idea, it is really beside the point.
Scientists, including me, serve on committees that advise governments at all levels. We do the tedious work of digging into the data and weighing the evidence. We usually don’t present our individual research, but try to convey to policymakers what scientists have collectively discovered about a given topic.
These advisory bodies are designed to be transparent about the data they use, reveal members’ conflicts of interest, and solicit input and feedback from the broader public.
In other words, they are democratic institutions that we should trust to tell us about the scientific aspects of the issues that confront us.
Too often, however, politicians conflate scientific evidence about risks we face with a demand for specific policy proposals. As a result, politicians who oppose climate policy are hostile to climate science just as politicians who favor hydraulic fracturing try to prevent scientific agencies from even studying it.
But as marine science professor David Hastings told Scott, scientists are the “mapmakers” while politicians are the “navigators.” The navigator must ultimately choose the ship’s course, but to do so while ignoring – or arbitrarily redrawing – the map is a perilous business.
The distinction and the process should be familiar to any elected official. After all, politicians aren’t engineers, but they approve infrastructure projects. They aren’t accountants, but they create budgets. They aren’t inventors, but they make patent laws.
As Congress has become more polarized, including around scientific issues, some local and state governments have been trying to close the gap between science and policymaking.
For instance, while Rubio and Scott might have a strained relationship with climate science, city and county officials in Florida have already banded together to plan for future sea level rise.
Similarly, Congress tied the Environmental Protection Agency’s hands when it comes to monitoring air and water pollution from hydraulic fracturing. City council members have reached out to local scientists to help them make sense of the risks as they simultaneously weigh the benefits of economic development from new wells. In Colorado, which formed a commission to study fracking, some advocates are calling for a year’s worth of so-called “baseline testing” that would allow the state to assess pre- and post-fracking air and water quality. Such testing could provide trusted, publicly available scientific information that both pro- and anti-fracking groups should welcome.
Finally, public policy has an undeniable effect on our diets, including sugar overconsumption and poor childhood nutrition. But some politicians responsible for food policy ignore this research. Again, cities such as Los Angeles and states including Minnesota are moving ahead with “food charters” that bring together farmers, nutrition experts, parents, community organizations and government officials to foster stronger local food systems.
Scientists study the risks we face – whether it’s from failing to vaccinate our children, prescription drugs, hydraulic fracturing, climate change, or exposure to toxic chemicals.
Politicians don’t have to respond to every one of these risks, of course. They can and should disagree with each other about if and how to respond.
But saying, “I’m not a scientist” in the face of scientific evidence is a cheap cop-out. As a talking point, it should be quickly retired.]]>