Conflicting studies and special interest groups make developing policies to protect public health contentious and chaotic. How can lawmakers recognize 'sound' science and make good decisions?
We face health risks every day. Second-hand tobacco smoke, Car exhaust. Radon and asbestos. Pesticides in foods. High fat diets. Eating peanut butter. Not eating peanut butter.
Peanut butter? Some scientists claim that eating a peanut butter sandwich once every 10 days will give you a cancer risk of seven in a million. Others claim that eating peanuts is healthy, citing research that diets high in peanuts and peanut oils reduce the risk of heart disease by 21 percent, far outweighing a seven in a million (.0007 percent) cancer risk.
Should policymakers ban peanut butter or promote it?
How can decision makers create good policy when they are bombarded on all sides with conflicting scientific studies cited by aggressive industry and public interest groups?
Science is based primarily on facts gained from studies and technical investigations. Policy, on the other hand, tends to be value-based and incorporates the wishes of the public, industry and special interests. This does not mean that science is without controversy. As with public policy, scientists debate different theories and solutions until they arrive at a consensus.
"Policymakers often are put in the position of choosing between extreme points of view rather than making decisions based on objective and rigorous evaluation," says Ken Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
But it is "inappropriate," he says, for groups to request more scientific research as a delaying tactic, "We have to have the courage to act when information is available that the potential risks outweigh the benefits [of not acting]."
The public may want laws that provide reasonable protection and err on the side of safety when not enough information is available. Conversely, business and industry would prefer to wait until science provides overwhelming evidence of an environmental health risk before engaging in potentially costly regulation. In the center of the fray stands the policymaker, whose task it is to balance the interests of these groups while taking into account potential economic impacts and scientific knowledge, hopefully achieving a policy that provides the best overall balance of acceptable risk, cost and health benefit.
POLITICAL SCIENCE--AN OXYMORON
"Far too many environmental health regulations are based on politics, rather than sound science," opines New Hampshire Representative Jeff MacGillivray, who holds a PhD in physics. "For example, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments exempted heavy duty motor vehicles (SUVs) from substantial nitrogen oxide controls [pollution control] until 2004, even though it would have been a cost-effective means of reducing pollution [to include them in the controls]."
MacGillivray stresses that "environmental regulation should obtain the maximum environmental benefit for every environmental dollar spent."
Since regulatory actions can have dramatic economic effect on industry, it is essential that they be based on sound science. Regulatory action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Food Quality Protection Act and the Clean Air Act are burning issues because of their potential to cost the energy and agricultural industries a large amount of money.
Opponents of these new regulations purport that the rules are not based on sound science and cite studies or papers that contradict the agency's conclusions. They may demand that the government wait until more evidence is in. The problem is that legislators and the general public are mostly nonscientists and have trouble judging the quality of the scientific information that is presented.
"Policies with emotional appeal must not …