By David Michaels
In the issue of Science Magazine on your virtual newsstand today, Don Kennedy has written a powerful editorial entitled “Science, Information, and Power.” (sub required) Dr. Kennedy observes that the confrontation between Congress and the White House over the production and control of science used in regulation is about an issue fundamental to both science and democracy – the president’s claims to exclusive power over knowledge.
Drawing as examples the House Oversight Committee’s hearings on politicization of federal science, along with the recent changes President Bush made in the Executive Order on the workings of regulatory agencies (see here and here and here), Dr. Kennedy writes that the dispute
is about more than whether politics can trump science. At its core, it is a struggle for authority between a presidency wanting control over information so that the public will accept its version of reality, and a Congress insistent on its responsibility to find facts needed to shape national policy.
Dr. Kennedy is a one of the most thoughtful observers of the regulatory scene. Dr. Kennedy was FDA Commissioner in the late 1970s, then President of Stanford University. Now he serves as editor of Science Magazine, the main publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation’s leading science organization.
Here is a longer excerpt from the editorial:
The U.S. Congress does more than manufacture statutes. There’s oversight of administrative agencies, and anyone who has been in charge of one knows how tough that process can be (even, as in my case, if the inquisitors are from your party). Now Henry Waxman, chair of the House Oversight Committee, is scheduling hearings–the first was on 30 January–about efforts by Administration officials to modify or rewrite the scientific findings of agency scientists. There promise to be more, and there should be. The Union of Concerned Scientists has just released a comprehensive report on such matters, and supplied witnesses to the Waxman hearing.
But there is a conveniently timed push-back from the White House. A new initiative announced late in January will affect the way in which executive agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration generate guidelines and regulations. The plan places new responsibilities on a political appointee in each agency, claiming that it will smooth the process of rule-making and make it more consistent. Critics fear that its purpose is to enforce Administration control over the development of regulations affecting the environment and public health. Significantly, the announcement was published on the very day of the Waxman hearing.
Those who believe that convergences are often not mere coincidences will see these events as a typical, garden-variety struggle between a Democratic Congress and the White House over the use of science in informing policy. But this confrontation is about more than whether politics can trump science. At its core, it is a struggle for authority between a presidency wanting control over information so that the public will accept its version of reality, and a Congress insistent on its responsibility to find facts needed to shape national policy.
This contest over the power of the presidency could not be more fundamental to the democratic values of American society. Presidential claims to exclusive power over knowledge may sometimes be justifiable in our national interest, but we should not be misled. We are not an empire–and our president is neither an emperor nor, as author and historian Garry Wills reminds us, the commander-in-chief of anyone who doesn’t happen to be in the army or the navy.
In the last few years, the science community has pushed back against Bush administration attempts to limit public health regulaton through control of scientific information. Two examples, among many, are the community’s response to the White House’s “peer review” proposal (here and here) and the recent National Academy of Sciences’ rejection of the White House risk assessment guidelines.
Until recently, the science community was more or less alone in this fight. Now, with Congress more fully engaged in the discussion, we can expect a loud, national debate on democracy and science.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.