by Robert Shull 

With the Bush administration’s war on science raging all around us, it’s nice to be able to report a win for the public.

In January 2006, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) of the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a draft bulletin proposing to impose one-size-fits-all criteria for all agency risk assessments – and a good deal of other scientific and technical evaluations that aren’t considered risk assessments. OIRA’s bulletin was expected to be the swansong of then-OIRA administrator John Graham, who had long advocated manipulations and distortions of risk assessment in order to subvert federal capacity to protect the public.

OIRA submitted the proposed bulletin for peer review by the National Research Council, which has just delivered a stunning rebuke to Graham’s dream.

In language much blunter than expected from the National Academies, the NRC panel called for OIRA not to even bother tinkering around the edges of the proposed bulletin but to withdraw it altogether.

The expert panel agreed with many of the criticisms lodged by the scientific and public interest communities (including the Center for Progressive Reform, Natural Resources Defense Council, OMB Watch, and Public Citizen).  Among them:

  • There are problems at the very core of the bulletin:  the definitions of information products covered by the bulletin’s edicts.  OIRA took it upon itself to redefine the term “risk assessment,” despite years of clarity in that regard thanks to the NRC’s “Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process” report (the “Red Book”) and other such documents. OIRA would have applied its new mandates not just to risk assessments, as the scientific community understands the term, but also to a wide array of risk-related evaluations that fall short of complete risk assessment, such as the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens.
  • The bulletin would have devastating consequences for federal capacity to protect the public.  As the NRC report notes, these consequences include “the likely drain on agency resources, the extended time necessary to complete risk assessments that are undertaken, and the highly likely disruptive effect on many agencies.”  The panel wryly adds that “OMB, the champion of benefit-cost analysis for decision-making,” has failed to consider these costs.
  • The bulletin would establish across-the-board mandates to all kinds of risk assessments – including such radically different kinds of assessments as evaluating the integrity of a bridge, assessing the hazards of getting a space shuttle up and back safely, and estimating the fatality risk of exposure to a hazardous waste site.  “One size does not fit all,” the report concludes.
  • The bulletin is tone deaf to the precautionary assumptions built in to many risk assessments in order to ensure that resulting risk management decisions benefit vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly.  The bulletin’s emphasis on central estimates of risks would mean that “decision-makers could be deprived of risk-related information on vulnerable segments of the population and the potential impacts of measurable exposures that have not been identified as adverse.”

These problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

OMB held a press conference today, announcing that it will not release this draft bulletin in a final form.  It remains to be seen, however, whether OIRA will proceed with its efforts to burden risk assessments.  That ball, apparently, will be in Susan Dudley’s court.

J. Robert Shull is Deputy Director for Auto Safety and Regulatory Policy at Public Citizen.