Strengthening Science's Voice at EPA

By Elliott, E. Donald | Law and Contemporary Problems, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Science's Voice at EPA

Elliott, E. Donald, Law and Contemporary Problems

Throughout EPA's history, our greatest successes have occurred when policies, regulations, and decisions are based on the results of sound and relevant scientific research.... [T]he credibility of our decisions depends on the science underlying them. The quality of the science behind those decisions largely determines how well environmental programs actually work whether they achieve our health and environmental goals.

--Former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman (1)



Most administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") pay lip service to science, particularly during their confirmation hearings. But the truth is, despite recent reforms, the role of science at EPA still needs to be strengthened. (2) One incident that exemplifies the nature of the problem occurred early in the Reagan Administration: Shortly after taking office, then-EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch fired most of the scientists on EPA's Science Advisory Board to replace them with scientists who were good, solid Republicans. (3)

The problem is not limited to one political party or ideological point of view. EPA is truly bipartisan in its tendency to run roughshod over science to follow the political winds. For example, until recently EPA adhered to the scientifically discredited "no-threshold" hypothesis for carcinogens because the results please environmentalists, (4) and EPA sometimes refuses to acknowledge the worldwide scientific consensus regarding global climate change because doing so would displease conservatives. (5) "Good science" is not a partisan issue, nor does it favor industry over environmentalists. (6) On the contrary, the modern environmental movement was founded on the work of scientists such as Rachel Carson who used science to challenge society to change its ways. (7)

Adam Smith once wrote: "[S]cience is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition." (8) It is a bipartisan antidote, he might have added, for science can correct the misguided enthusiasms and superstitions of either the right or the left. Recent waverings by EPA over whether to weaken the arsenic standard for drinking water promulgated in the waning days of the Clinton Administration show the importance of good science in holding the Agency's feet to the fire in the face of political opposition from industry. (9) Good science is not, as some have cynically suggested, merely in the eye of the beholder, nor is it whatever technical information can be cobbled together to support one's predetermined position. (10) Rather, when the system works properly, good science is a chorus of independent expert voices that come together with sufficient coherence and force to constrain policy, structure debate, and influence policy. Rarely does good science dictate a unique policy outcome; more often, it structures a policy dialogue among different disciplines and constituencies by defining a problem and a range of options, but it may also figure in the decision of which options to adopt. (11)



This Article considers the problem of institutional reforms to enhance the role of science in EPA decisionmaking. This is an important problem, but it is not the only issue relating to science at EPA that might be considered. To avoid misunderstanding, it may be important to define at the outset what this Article is not about. This Article is not concerned with the nature of science, whether all scientists must agree, whether science is "objective," nor even, for that matter, whether science actually exists. Those are fine philosophical questions that many other articles discuss at length. This Article adopts as a starting point, however, the common sense perspective that there is some coherence, if not unanimity, to scientific thought on some issues of relevance to environmental policy. It then considers how to reform institutions so that existing scientific coherence will have a greater influence on policy. …

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