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    The White House vs. Science

    Laboratory Rats

    The Bush administration is determined to give new meaning to the term
    political science.

    While jabbering about "sound science," President Bush has packed advisory
    panels with ideological appointments, censored reports, and gagged
    government scientists.

    Now, an obscure administrative power grab, camouflaged as a scientific gold
    standard, will likely result in giving politics even more control over science.

    The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is tarnishing "peer
    review," a respected process routinely used by academic journals and
    government agencies. In peer review, knowledgeable scientists evaluate the
    soundness of one another's research.

    OMB, created in 1970 to advise the president on the federal budget, wants
    to micromanage who reviews studies emanating from all over government, from
    the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to the Environmental
    Protection Agency to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    These numbers crunchers, who have no scientific expertise, have offered
    scant rationale for wresting oversight from career scientists.

    Perhaps worst of all, they have written bizarrre new conflict-of-interest
    rules for peer review that would disqualify some of the nation's best minds
    (because they got government research grants), while allowing
    industry-funded scientists to pack peer review panels. The pretext is
    scientific rigor, but the subtext is ideology.

    These new procedures could indefinitely bog down important rule-making that
    protects the health and safety of Americans.

    And perhaps that's the point.

    Industry has long denounced the nation's regulatory system, particularly
    when a study found a product unsafe or a chemical polluting. OMB's new
    policy would make it easier for the administration to quietly short-circuit
    rules by questioning the underlying science (already one of its favorite
    games).

    If that seems far-fetched, just look at who's lining up for and against the
    proposal. Proponents read like a who's-who of industry lobbyists (many of
    them Bush campaign contributors): the Edison Electric Institute, the
    American Petroleum Institute, Ford Motor Co., National Cattlemen's
    Association, the Industrial Minerals Association of North America.

    The opposing side is a roll call of the nation's most esteemed scientists:
    the National Academies of Science, the American Association for the
    Advancement of Science, the Federation of American Scientists, the
    Association of American Medical Colleges, plus environmental, consumer and
    public-interest groups.

    In numerous public comments on the proposed change, scientists complain
    that OMB hasn't offered a single reason for reinventing a peer review
    system that wasn't broken.

    It is true that agency peer review policies are uneven. The EPA and Food
    and Drug Administration, for example, have detailed, multilayered
    procedures. The Department of Agriculture and Army Corps of Engineers, on
    the other hand, have no policies at all. But OMB could fix any problems
    without imposing this harmful "one-size-fits-all" directive.

    Foremost, agencies need flexibility. Not all scientific information
    requires the same level of time-consuming, expensive peer review. In some
    cases, simple internal review is, in fact, sufficient.

    Regardless of the level of review, the budget crunchers at OMB aren't the
    only watchdogs on the case.

    If questions are raised after a study comes out, agencies already have
    inspectors general to investigate. Congress can call in its detective, the
    General Accounting Office. Citizens and industry have recourse to sue.

    The American Public Health Association's biggest fear is this policy's
    "potential negative impact on public health and environmental regulation" -
    with good reason.

    Hidden in the policy is a subtle shift in emergency powers to OMB. In an
    "imminent health hazard," the administrator of OMB - not generally a public
    health expert - would determine when and whether to release information to
    the public.

    The White House tried this before, downplaying the air quality hazards in
    New York City after the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11,
    2001. And the OMB has been criticized for stopping the EPA from declaring a
    public health emergency over asbestos contamination in Montana.

    Decisions on potential crises - whether air quality, mad cow disease, SARS,
    anthrax or a nuclear plant accident - belong to experts focused on public
    health, far removed from the politics of the next election.

    The Bush administration is at it again. This policy isn't "sound science."
    It just sounds like science.

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