The environment and human health are inextricably linked. And key to improving both are effective policies based on the best available science the knowledge upheld by current research and the broad scientific community. Oftentimes, however, factors other than science drive policy decisions, posing many challenges to the scientific community (see story, this issue).
To discuss how to get more scientific integrity into policy-making, graduate students at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) held a panel discussion last spring. The discussion grew out of a campaign by the Union of Concerned Scientists to raise awareness about political interference in government science, such as concerns about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal science agencies.
Four invited panelists brought varied backgrounds and experiences to the discussion. The participants were John McTague, a former science advisor to President Ronald Reagan and current UCSB professor of materials science; Mark Capelli, a steelhead trout recovery coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service; Andrew Eller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Eric Smith, a UCSB professor of political science.
Throughout the discussion, the panelists pointed out that the problem of scientific integrity in policy-making involves scientists, decision-makers and the public, both directly and indirectly. Unethical behavior, personal and professional bias, lack of participation, and poor communication among these stakeholders all present major barriers to getting informed science into the policy-making process.
To illustrate the problem of unethical behavior, Eller discussed a case in which conservation and land-development interests have collided in southern Florida. The controversy stems from a 1995 paper in Conservation Biology by ecologists David Maehr and James Cox on the habitat requirements of the endangered Florida panther. The authors failed to acknowledge data that they omitted and made flawed inferences about the habitat range of the nocturnal panther from data collected during the daytime (when the panther is at rest).
For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the study as a basis for reviewing and issuing development permits despite concerns voiced by biologists. Eller stated that political interference prevented biologists from adopting a more accurate habitat definition that would have created additional restrictions for development.
The solution to the problem of unethical behavior begins with the scientists conducting research. Scientists must make clear any assumptions, uncertainties in interpretation, and predictions and exclusions of data in their work. Such transparency is critical for reliable guidance of policy and warrants the careful attention of editors and reviewers of scientific literature.
An approach to the problem on the federal level is the creation of legislation that bans political interference in science. A recent example is the introduction by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) of an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education 2006 appropriations bill. The amendment, which passed in the Senate, prohibits the use of federal funds to disseminate deliberately false or misleading scientific information, or to question federal science advisory committee nominees about their political affiliations.
In many other cases, panelist Smith of UCSB argued, the barriers to well-grounded policy relate to pre-conceptions. Both personal and professional bias can influence the opinions of scientists. Policy-makers carry additional biases from voters and higher-level politicians.
At the panel discussion, McTague of UCSB gave the following example of how bias led to the formulation of ineffective policy: In 1990, the California Air Resources Board enacted a zero-emission vehicle mandate that required automakers to meet a certain schedule for the production of electric cars. The mandate was partly based on overly optimistic market projections by scientists who believed that electric vehicles would be readily accepted by consumers. To deal with lagging market acceptance, flexibility had to be added to the mandate in the form of relaxed production requirements and credits for producing conventional vehicles with very low emissions. With all its changes, the mandate has done far less to curb emissions than originally hoped.
Addressing the problem of bias in environmental policy-making is a matter of appropriately dividing responsibilities. Trained scientists should provide data and interpret its implications for environmental quality. Policy-makers should then be responsible for balancing the science, economics, predictions and associated risk, as well as various impacts on a diverse society.
This segregation requires effective communication between scientists, policy-makers and the public. Scientists should become involved directly in the public debate by writing letters and editorials to newspapers and periodicals, and by joining community discussions. Various groups can provide opportunities for members of the scientific community to engage policy-makers in discussion. Scientists themselves also can take a proactive role by calling for meetings with decision-makers, instead of waiting for an invitation. In all these situations, scientists should present their knowledge in a format and language that is broadly accessible, and emphasize the implications for society and policy.
Qualified scientists can enter into politics as elected officials or political staff, thereby establishing a direct link in communication. Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and worked as a college professor before being elected to Congress, where he currently serves on the House Science Committee. In a 2004 statement to a National Academy of Sciences committee, Ehlers remarked that the number of scientists willing to enter government service is declining, and he called on scientists to learn about the political process and participate. As incentive, he commented on his own satisfaction in bringing about change on a national level, citing his success in helping to increase funding for basic research at the National Science Foundation.
Heading into this falls elections, we can hope that more scientists take an interest in politics. Meanwhile, any successful science policy-making requires the continued communication and involvement of everyone who cares about the future of the planet on which we live.