House Bill Will Squelch Science-Based Oversight (Op-Ed)
Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

Celia Wexler is a senior Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Initiative at UCS. An award-winning journalist, Wexler authored "Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis" (McFarland, 2012). This article is adapted from the post "When 'Sound Science' Isn't" on the UCS blog The Equation.

She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows." —George Orwell

I cited that quotation while speaking to a group of students last year, but many of them had a hard time grasping what I meant. Orwell, in his classic dystopian novel 1984, described what it was like to live under a government that believed it could change facts and make citizens believe them. It could, for example, proclaim that two plus two equaled five, and that would become the new reality.

I am in no way implying that we currently live in a country where we lack the freedom to state what is true. But these days, I am finding in Washington that some members of Congress are certainly putting forward proposals with stated goals that contradict what the proposals actually would do. Those same members are twisting language, so that words like "transparency" and "accountability" overlay an agenda that uses these honorable words to do the dishonorable bidding of wealthy special interests that want to escape legitimate scrutiny and regulation.

There is no better illustration of this disconnect than Rep. Stephen Fincher's (R-Tenn.) "Sound Science" legislation, H.R. 1287.

The bill is one of thousands introduced in both chambers of Congress each year. But this bill actually was passed by the House as a provision of its farm bill.

The "sound science" bill has been cleverly messaged as promoting scientific integrity. In reality, the bill would produce the antithesis of scientific integrity. It would make it nearly impossible for federal agencies to use science to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

The bill's sponsors actually cited President Obama's memorandum directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to require federal agencies to restore scientific integrity to government decision-making. And in discussing the bill, the bill's sponsors have gone even farther, citing UCS's careful and exhaustive evaluations of agency scientific-integrity policies, to make their case.

Indeed, in a talk broadcast on the radio a few weeks ago, Rep. Fincher specifically cited UCS's critique of scientific integrity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help sell the bill. Rep. Fincher did not state outright that UCS supports the bill, but he gave that erroneous impression.

Both UCS and OSTP interpret the term scientific integrity the same way. Its core values include respect for evidence-based, unbiased science at federal agencies, and ensuring that federal scientists are able to do their work without fear of political or corporate interference. It means that federal scientists do not fear retaliation if they speak out when information is being censored or manipulated. It respects the right of agency scientists to have the last review of any public information that relies primarily on their research. And, scientific integrity recognizes that scientists have the right to discuss their findings with the public and with Congress.

But Rep. Fincher's proposal would damage scientific integrity. His legislation establishes clever traps — a series of procedural hurdles — that would make science at federal agencies subject to endless challenges by special interests that do not want to see agency regulations move forward.

Worse, Fincher's proposal goes way beyond agency regulations. The bill would affect virtually anything an agency does, including "listing, labeling or other identification of a substance, product or activity as hazardous or creating risk to human health, safety or the environment," or any document that interprets "a statutory or regulatory issue."

And if an agency doesn't follow those procedures? It can't act. If it tries to act, this bill gives a judge the right to override whatever policy decision the agency made.

How does this work in the real world? Well, let's take an agency policy that Rep. Fincher has criticized and which he has claimed his bill would address — attempts by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review the routine use of antibiotics in animal feed, "without a sound scientific basis." (Rep. Fincher's worries largely are unfounded. The FDA has shown little enthusiasm for regulating the routine use of antibiotics in livestock.)

Science is on the side of much more stringent regulation. The UCS Food and Environment program, citing substantial scientific evidence, has warned that the routine use of antibiotics in livestock is a major factor in antibiotic resistance in humans, a huge and growing public-health problem.

But if the Sound Sciencebill became law, it would be even more difficult for the FDA to try to curb the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in our livestock, and hence in our food supply. The agriculture industry, aided by pharmaceutical manufacturers, could block regulation by subjecting the FDA's science to nearly infinite rounds of scrutiny, specifically to achieve "paralysis by analysis." Those special interests would have free rein to claim that the science was not certain, that the agency had not looked at every study — or plumbed each and every avenue of research — no matter how obscure or even tangentially relevant. And those special interests could challenge the agency in court, and likely win.

This is not a new tactic. For decades, the tobacco industry kept regulation at bay by claiming that not all facts were in absolutely linking tobacco use to cancer. Because of litigation around tobacco, the public has access to an entire library of incriminating documents, including strategy memos that make clear that casting doubt on science has long been a technique of corporate interests. However, the technique of paralysis by analysis should not get even more help from our elected officials.

Rep. Fincher may call the bill "sound science" but that doesn't make it so. UCS and our reform-minded colleagues will be doing all we can to make sure this provision never makes it into law.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.