Assessing Science's Part in a Good 'Earth' Policy Sierra Club Chairman and a Former Republican Congressman Find Middle Ground in Environmental Debate

Article excerpt

AS part of the Contract With America, House Republicans have passed legislation that would require the federal government to assess the risk of "major" environmental rules before they are applied. This bill, which has yet to pass in the Senate, is controversial. Why should risk assessment, ostensibly a science-based process, generate so much debate?

The main reason is that risk assessment is not a purely scientific exercise, because it blends science with policy choices. A recent study funded by the Department of Energy, "Choices in Risk Assessment," concluded that "risk assessments can be designed and biased to achieve predetermined regulatory outcomes and objectives." Politics will always play a role in environmental policy. But science should lay the groundwork for policy choices; it should not be distorted to justify political decisions.

Another problem is that most risk assessments are conducted with incomplete and inconclusive information. Policymakers must use partial data, create exposure scenarios, and rely on overly simplified models to determine risk. When it comes to ecological issues, such as threats to wetlands, the scientific data tends to be even more difficult to obtain and evaluate.

To base risk assessments more on science than on politics, we need an objective, reliable, accessible source of quality environmental science. We should shield this source from political influence. That's the challenge facing Congress, the executive branch, and the scientific community -- and it goes a lot deeper than risk assessment.

The simplest solution might be to leave environmental research where it is, and try to establish a "firewall" to protect it from politics. That may be difficult to do inside regulatory and resource management agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Forest Service, where science is largely a response to past congressional directives. Science needs to be in the vanguard of environmental policy, not the rear guard.

Three former administrators of the EPA have backed a proposal to create a National Institute for the Environment (NIE), an independent, nonregulatory institute charged with improving the scientific basis for environmental decisions. …