Saturday, February 7, 2009

Calls for More Science in Policy-Making and Regulation

A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy (see full citation at end) calls for greater efforts to enhance the use of scientific evidence in environmental policy decisions. The study was conducted by the Environment Research Funders' Forum, which brings together the main UK governmental funders of environmental research. As a result of a series of detailed interviews with both researchers and policy-makers, the authors recommended a means of increasing the integration of science with policy. While there is guidance for incorporation of science into policy-making, the study concluded that the current practice has not yet caught up, and they identify several actions that can be undertaken by the Forum and its members to narrow the gap.

One of the big issues seems to be when science is brought into the policy-making process; they conclude that it usually isn't early enough and that this delay can result in a mismatch between the objectives of policy and those of research. Essentially, scientists may be working on a particular line of research, but that research may then not always address the questions for which policy-makers need answers in order to make decisions. The study concludes that there are some practical steps that can be taken to improve the use of science in policy decisions, including:
  • a stronger role for policy makers and their advisers in developing research questions and agendas;

  • making it easier to find and access relevant experts and previous research and advice;

  • strengthening interpretation capacity across the science-policy interface, systematically developing skills and providing an attractive career path; and

  • developing the policy community as more discerning customers for science - providing more "policy pull."
The study can be found at: Holmes, J. and Clark, R. 2008. Enhancing the use of science in environmental policy-making and regulation. Environmental Science & Policy 11:702-711.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Scientists and Policy Making - The Honest Broker?

Scientists have a love/hate relationship with policy makers. We want to "do our science" but not necessarily get all into the whole political rangling thing. On the other hand, it displeases us (I'm being nice) to have our science abused by politicians or advocacy groups, who twist it to fit their predisposed ideological view. But it displeases us even moreso (still being nice) to have fellow scientists who forget their ethics. Luckily, they are the rare exception.

But as Roger A. Pielke, Jr. demonstrates in his book "The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics," sometimes the lines get blurred. Over the next few weeks I'll periodically come back to different parts of Pielke's book. To begin with, he defines four idealized roles of science in policy and politics (the roles are Pielke's; any misinterpretation of them are my own):

The Pure Scientist: Provides data and lets the policy maker (or decider?) make their own decisions. The pure scientist really doesn't have an interest in the decision-making process. ["Let me do my science. Get out of my lab now, please."]

The Science Arbiter: Serves as a resource to the decision-maker, and stands ready to answer factual questions that the decision-maker feels is relevant. The science arbiter does not tell the decision-maker what he or she ought to prefer. [Yes, the acid put in that paper cup will eat right through it. Next question.]

The Issue Advocate: The issue advocate seeks to limit choices, and will likely tell the decision-maker what choice he or she ought to prefer, based on the science. [Sir, you really ought to advocate for the cap-and-trade system.]

The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives: The Honest Broker, as you might imagine, tries to broaden the choices. He or she will provide a range of options to the decision-maker, generally including advantages and disadvantages. Then it is up to the decision-maker to, well, decide. [Okay, everything is on the table. Any questions? Okay, debate.]

The problem comes from what Pielke calls "stealth issue advocacy." More on that at a later date.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lautenberg Vows Chemical Control Reform Despite Efforts to Block It

Reform of Chemical Control laws has been a hot topic worldwide for the last few years. Europe passed a new law called REACH that requires registration, evaluation, and authorization of all chemicals - both new ones and all the ones already existing on the European inventory. Canada is in the middle of a prioritization review of all the chemicals on its inventory of existing substances. And the US has been using the existing Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and voluntary programs to evaluate at least the highest volume chemicals produced in the US.

In addition, last year Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Represenatives Hilda Solis (D-CA)and Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Kid Safe Chemical Act (KSCA), which quickly died in committee. But even with a Democratic President and Congress, there has been some question of whether the KSCA or some other form of TSCA chemical control law reform will get any priority in this Congress either. The economic crisis and other urgent issues will take up all their time, many say.

Senator Lautenberg, however, wants to assure stakeholders that he still expects to introduce legislation in the coming weeks. “The senator intends to push for and hold hearings on the need for TSCA reform, as well as reintroduce the Kid Safe Chemicals Act (KSCA). He also intends to move KSCA through [the Senate environment committee] and the Congress this session,” Lautenberg’s office said in a Jan. 30 statement. While other issues may take center stage in the press, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) late last month added EPA’s chemical assessment program to its list of government programs at high risk of waste, fraud and abuse. The GAO’s listing prompted calls from environmentalists for Congress to pass TSCA reform legislation. But efforts by Lautenberg and environmentalists to quickly move the bill may not be enough, as the chemical industry is lobbying key congressional Democrats not to introduce the bill. The complaints are two-fold: first, that there is also the likelihood of climate change legislation being introduced, which would give industry too much to handle at once; and second, that the KSCA as currently written would not be an effective mechanism by which to reform TSCA. Many argue that TSCA is fine as is, but that EPA just has not used their current authority effectively.

So questions remain about whether chemical control in the US will be reformed or not this session of Congress. Some congressional staffers suggest that the bill is “a non-starter” and that it is “not doable.” They say that industry has made its point and that the proponents of the Lautenberg bill “clearly understand that it’s not a viable option.” So we may get some hearings and statements being made this year, but no substantive movement on the congressional agenda until 2010. Or maybe we will all be surprised.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

CRS Studies Science and Technology Policy Office

Congress should examine the role and responsibilities of the White House Office of Science and Techonology Policy and question whether the office is effective, says a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.

Some in the science community have called for the office director to be elevated to a Cabinet-level post, but also warms that if the adviser is too close to the President then certain stakeholders may question the potential for politicization of science. On the other hand, CRS suggests that if the office becomes a completely independent agency it might be viewed as "inappropriately distancing" the President and the office.

The report points out the delicate balancing act between scientists and policy makers. Too distant could mean the appropriate questions could not be asked; too close could mean the policy makers have too much control over what scientists are allowed to say.

Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) through the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976. The act states that “The primary function of the OSTP Director is to provide, within the Executive Office of the President [EOP], advice on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of issues that require attention at the highest level of Government.” Further, “The Office shall serve as a source of scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the President with respect to major policies, plans, and programs of the Federal Government.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

Seeking a new global deal on climate change

The European Commission (EC) has released a paper outlining its position on climate change ahead of international climate talks. According to the paper, they foresee a major role for carbon trading in efforts to tackle climate change. The commission says the costs of containing global warming are likely to increase rapidly in years to come – adding 175 billion Euro to the cost the world must assume by 2020. More than half that amount, they say, will be needed in developing countries like China and India. The paper presents various options for increasing international funding – including requiring countries to contribute according to their income and level of emissions. Another option would be to auction some emission allowances on a carbon market.
The paper also says that the European Union and other economic powers should help defray the costs of reducing greenhouse gases emitted by developing nations. All developing nations, except the very poorest, would be required to limit growth in emissions by adopting development strategies that produce fewer greenhouse gases. These strategies should include stopping (or at least slowing) tropical deforestation, as trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide.

The EU is also keen to build on the steps it has already taken to stimulate others at talks in Copenhagen scheduled for December of this year. The United Nations is organising the conference for the purpose of securing a new and more ambitious global commitment to tackling climate change. The current treaty – the Kyoto Protocol – expires at the end of 2012. And so the EU will urge developed countries to commit to an overall 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (compared with 1990 levels). The contribution would vary by country, depending on income, population, level of emissions and past efforts to reduce emissions. Compliance should be monitored and enforced.

The commission also foresees a major role for emissions trading, and seeks to build a global carbon market. And they already have a head start, after introducing the EU carbon market (called the EU Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme) back in 2005. A growing number of countries are looking to follow suit, including the US, New Zealand and Australia. The scheme caps overall CO2 emissions, but allows businesses to buy and sell credits amongst themselves.

The paper notes that as some climate change is inevitable, it hopes the Copenhagen agreement will also provide a framework to help countries adapt. For example, they state that it should ensure support for poor nations vulnerable to extreme weather such as drought, storms and floods.

Much will be happening in the months between now and December, but the hope is that there will be a plan that moves the debate a large step forward. What role the US plays in this discussion remains to be seen.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Economic Stimulus Includes Whistleblowing Protections for Scientists

All eyes in the United States have been on the $813 billion economic stimulus package passed last week by the US House of Representatives. One line item that many may have missed is an amendment that provides for strong protection from retaliation for scientists who "blow the whistle when they report distortions, changes or delays in their research."

The amendment essentially attaches a whistleblower protection bill that was passed by both the House and Senate in 2007, but stalled after the Bush administration issued a veto threat. The amendment would add to the definition of abuse of authority "any action that compromises the validity or accuracy of federally funded research or analysis; the dissemination of false or misleading scientific, medical or technical information; any section that restricts or prevents an employee or any person performing federally-funded research or analysis from publishing in peer-reviewed journals or other scientific publications or making oral presentations at professional society meetings or other meetings of their peers..."

Clearly this is an attempt to protect scientists from what had been perceived as a science-unfriendly environment in the past administration. While so far there is no comment, it seems likely that the current administration would support the measure, given that President Obama and EPA Administrator Jackson have both stressed the important role of science and scientists as we move forward.

However, this was only an amendment in the House version of the stimulus bill. The Senate has yet to vote on a stimulus bill and it may or may not include the whistleblowing provisions. Furthermore, once the Senate passes a bill the two versions will have to go to conference to negotiate a final bill that would then be sent on to the President for signature or veto.