Saturday, February 28, 2009

Revisiting the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976

I have noted previously that there is a big push in this Congress to take a long hard look at the current chemical control regulations in the United States. Well, on Thursday, February 26, 2009 the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing on "Revisiting the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.” The hearing was designed to address the perception of critical gaps in the statute and explore how those gaps might hinder effective chemical safety policy in the United States.

The following witnesses, spanning a range of government, advocacy, and industry groups, all testified:

John Stephenson, Director, Natural Resources and the Environment, Government Accountability Office

J. Clarence Davies, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future (Former EPA Assistant Administrator for Policy in the George H.W. Bush Administration)

Maureen Swanson, Healthy Children Project Coordinator, Learning Disabilities Association of America

Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director/Director for Policy Initiatives, WE ACT For Environmental Justice (West Harlem Environmental Action)

Michael Wright, Director of Health and Safety, United Steelworkers

Richard Denison, Senior Scientist, Environmental Defense Fund

Kathy Gerwig, Vice President, Workplace Safety and Environmental Stewardship Officer, Kaiser Permanente

Cal Dooley, President and CEO, American Chemistry Council

V.M. DeLisi, President, Fanwood Chemical, Inc., Chairman, International Affairs Committee, Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association

Charles T. Drevna, President, National Petrochemical & Refiners Association

A link to the written testimony and video of the Subcommittee can be found on the Committee web site.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Will the Real Roger Pielke Please Stand Up?

A while back I wrote a piece from a book by Roger A. Pielke, Jr. called The Honest Broker. In my article I mentioned the four idealized roles of scientists in Pielke's view: The Pure Scientist, the Science Arbiter, the Issue Advocate, and the Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives. After I published the piece it was pointed out to me that Pielke is a "climate skeptic." Since I'm about to write a follow up piece on another concept Pielke raises in the Honest Broker, I thought it worth looking into Pielke further. And here the plot thickens.

To begin with, there are two Roger A. Pielke's, Jr. and Sr. Both are professors and both have expressed their concerns about climate science. And both have been offered by climate skeptics as "one of their own." Ironically, the Wiki article on Roger A. Pielke, Sr. says that he "has a somewhat nuanced position on climate change, which is sometimes taken for skepticism, a label that he explicitly renounces." In fact, Pielke, Sr. has said:

the evidence of a human fingerprint on the global and regional climate is incontrovertible as clearly illustrated in the National Research Council report and in our research papers (e.g. see

Similarly, Pielke, Jr. is often used as an icon of the skeptics, yet he too is not so much of a critic as the skeptics would have you believe. Dylan Otto Krider, founder of Whoslying, "a nonprofit devoted to correcting statements that do not responsibly reflect objective reality," today writes in a "Skepticism Examiner" blog called "Who is Roger Pielke, Jr." about his knowledge of the man and what he really thinks about climate change. It's an interesting article and I highly recommend that people read it.

The point is that all of us must be very careful not to simply take at face value what we hear on the news or read in blogs. It is always wise to get information from multiple sources and, whenever possible, go to the original source of the information. Believe it or not, people have been known to "reinterpret" information, either intentionally or through intellectual indolence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hey Scientists - Being Brilliant Isn't Enough!

One of the purposes of this blog is to highlight how scientists and policy makers interact. A friend recently sent me a link to an article called "Why turning out brilliant scientists isn't enough," written by Robert Winston and published in the New Scientist magazine on February 3, 2009. [If you missed it, the title has the link to the original article.]

Professor Winston argues that scientists must "engage with - and, crucially, listen to - the public..." It's not enough to be pure scientists, so he suggests that "a two-way dialogue...seems more likely than a one-way lecture to lead to a maturing of viewes and resolution of conflict." And we all know how much scientists (and academics) like to lecture. Winston suggests that if scientists "show we care about the ethical implications of our work, people are likely to be sympathetic."

This, of course, ties in with science literacy, and understanding and appreciating science at an early age. More importantly perhaps, is the ability to teach critical thinking to our youth so that they can consider whether some of the information they receive as they grow older makes sense or not.

While Winston believes we have come a long way toward improved interaction between scientists and the public, he insists we need to do much more. "We have a duty to conduct research to ensure that the ways we attempt to engage really do have an impact..."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chemical Control, Bobby Rush, and Hearings Start on Thursday

Just a few days ago I reported that it was likely that the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection was planning to hold hearings soon on reform of the current chemical control law in the United States. Well, seems that "soon" is now Thursday, as in this Thursday, February 26th in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) has been in place virtually unchanged since 1976, and there have been increasing calls to make changes to the law over the last few years. The current Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which this Subcommittee is a part, is Henry Waxman, who introduced the House version of the Kid Safe Chemical Act (KSCA) back in 2005 and cosponsored the 2008 version introduced by Representative Hilda Solis.

The subcommittee in charge of running hearings on TSCA reform is chaired by Representative Bobby Rush, of the 1st Congressional District in Illinois. Some may remember Rush from his rather controversial speech at the news conference in which now-impeached Governor Blagojevich announced he had appointed the now-embattled Roland Burris to fill now-President Barack Obama's Senate seat.

It is expected that this will be the first of several hearings that take place in both the House and the Senate prior to the reintroduction of the Kid Safe Chemical Act. While the KSCA seems likely to be introduced, there is also pressure to come up with a more workable reform of TSCA, perhaps one that incorporates the current and proposed enhancements to the EPA ChAMP program.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Past Director of Health Institutes Lauds Stimulus Funding for Science

A week or so ago I posted some of the new funding for science added to the stimulus package passed by Congress. Well, now the immediate past director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Elias A. Zerhouni, says that "the timing and amount of this stimulus could not have been more opportune." He notes that not only have science budgets fallen steadily since 2003, philanthropic foundations and private gifts that helped lessen the shortfall have been severely cut back as well due to the current economic downturn.

While some complain that funding for science isn't "stimulus," Zerhouni says that he has "testified in Congress that for every $1 billion shortfall in the NIH base budget, an estimated 6000 to 9000 scientific jobs are lost, with an equal number of jobs lost in indirect support activities." Add to that all the other jobs lost as industry lays off scientific staff.

So while the economic stimulus funds will help in the short term, Zerhouni cautions that this is only a partial answer. To be successful in staving "off the loss of talented scientists" it must be "coupled with a longer-term increase in the base budgets of the research agencies." This will be hard to do in tough economic times, but "it may well be attainable given the clear and welcome commitment to science just shown by the new U.S. administration and Congress."

Finally, Zerhouni notes that "A nation's most strategic resource is the strength of its scientific workforce. It is imperative that the entire scientific community coalesce around a quantifiable and shared rationale for rebalancing the base domestic federal research budget beyond the one-time stimulus package." I think most scientists would agree that funding has been severely limiting the ability to make new discoveries and understand the critical issues that face our future. This is a priority that must be kept in mind even as we deal collectively with economic uncertainties.

[Mr. Zerhouni made these comments as an editorial in the current issue of Science magazine (February 20, 2009), which is accessible by subscription ( Photo credit, National Institutes of Health.]