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The Role for Science in Regulatory Policy

An expert panel today suggested ways to improve how U.S. regulatory agencies use input from outside scientists. Their recommendations urge the government to be more transparent in selecting and vetting experts, clearer in defining what questions it wants answered, and more rigorous in reviewing the relevant literature. The report, from the Science for Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., also comes with a warning to the Obama Administration: Asking scientists to make policy undermines the science and leads to bad policies.

Federal agencies, notably the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, tap scientific experts to guide their rule-making on everything from drinking water to endangered species. But critics say that laws meant to ensure that the system is open and fair are sometimes ignored or twisted to satisfy the political interests of the Administration in power. "Right now we have a mishmash of policies and no uniformity," says co-chair Sherwood Boehlert, a retired Republican congressman from upstate New York. "What we need is a system that's as open as possible, and that's also consistent from one agency to the next."

Co-chair Donald Kennedy, former editor of Science, says that another big problem is asking scientists to go beyond the limits of their expertise. "We need to separate the science from the policy. Otherwise, groups end up criticizing the science because they don't like the policy." Or, as Boehlert puts it, "How much risk a substance poses to human health or the environment is a science question. How much risk is acceptable [to society] is a policy question."

The 13-member panel included officials from previous Democratic and Republican Administrations as well as prominent academics, corporate leaders, and regulatory experts. The study was funded by the David and Lucile Packard, the William and Flora Hewlett, and the ExxonMobil foundations.