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Environmental Science Under Siege

Oct 23, 1996
Caucus and Staff Report
Fringe Science and the 104th Congress

A Report by
Rep. George E. Brown, Jr., Ranking Democratic Member
the Democratic Caucus of the Committee on Science
U.S. House of Representatives
October 23, 1996

Transmittal Letter

Democratic Cacus letterhead (George Brown, Ranking Democrat)
October 23, 1996


TO:         Members, Democratic Caucus
              Committee on Science
FROM:    George E. Brown, Jr.
              Ranking Democratic Member

During the 104th Congress, the Committee on Science launched a major initiative directed at the basic integrity of the science community.  Three major hearings, entitled "Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust," were convened by the Energy and Environment Subcommittee to showcase allegations that science had been distorted to promote an environmentalist agenda.  The hearings focused on alleged abuses in the science on stratospheric ozone depletion, global climate change, and the health risks posed by dioxin.

This series of hearings did not occur in a vacuum.  The new Republican Congress promised as part of its "Contract with America" to fundamentally change the way environmental regulations would be promulgated.  With a new majority, dominated by what has been characterized as an inexperienced and ideological freshman class, the Republicans launched an attack on the basic methods by which environmental regulations could be established.  In fact, this attack spread to encompass almost all forms of regulation-including those designed to insure public health, protect the environment, and guarantee workplace safety.

This radical effort in the House went too far, even for a Republican-dominated Senate, and regulatory reform legislation died in the 104th Congress.  However, the two most prominent qualities of the effort to pass this legislation in the House were (1) the shameless use of industry lobbyists to draft the legislation and staff Committee mark-ups, and (2) the widespread reliance on anecdotal stories, usually apocryphal, of the stupid consequences of regulations or the weak scientific basis for regulation.  Again and again, like a mantra, we heard calls for "sound science" from Members who had little or no experience of what science does and how it progresses.

This broader environment in the House set the context for the hearings in the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.  The Subcommittee effort was an extension of the themes of the regulatory reform debate and the line of criticism laid out by big industry lobbyists.  Widely quoted scientific critics of environmental regulation were cited for the proposition that Federal researchers were merely wasting dollars on a politically driven agenda.  But the hearings went beyond allegations of overzealous regulators.  They implied that scientists themselves were part of a vast conspiracy with environmental regulators.  The terms of the pact were that the scientists would exaggerate their certainty and consensus on environmental problems and the bureaucrats could use these statements, with help from their environmental activist allies, to push through ever more stringent regulations and ever greater funding for the researchers.  Bureaucrats were funding science that justified their existence and scientists sold their integrity to the bureaucrats in exchange for steady funding.

At the conclusion of these hearings, I asked the Minority staff to prepare a comprehensive report on the very serious allegations made by the Majority and their witnesses.  My intent was to examine in more depth the specific charges leveled against the scientific community and the involved Federal agencies, to ascertain whether or not these charges had merit, and to review the political and cultural factors that may have motivated these hearings.  The staff produced case studies of the three Subcommittee hearings.  I then synthesized those cases into basic themes or findings.  My report follows with the staff case studies included in the appendix.

Reviewing the hearing record, the staff could find no credible evidence to support the claims that scientists distorted their research to serve political ends.  In fact, the record shows that the science in question was carried out in the best tradition of objective, peer-reviewed science.

This report raises serious concerns regarding the approach to science and policymaking represented by the hearings themselves.  Beyond the specific allegations of misconduct lurks a deep distrust of government-funded science and the scientific "establishment" represented by peer-review and the scientific assessment process.  This distrust flies in the face of House Republican's oft-repeated affection for basic research and science.

Further, there seemed to be an assumption that Congressional hearings would be an appropriate forum for determining scientific "truth" and for resolving scientific disagreements.  This was tied to a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, critique of publication of experimental methods and findings and peer review.  By rejecting the time-tested tradition of scientific peer review and substituting an overtly political process for judging scientific truth, the Subcommittee hearings were an ominous portent for the future role of science in environmental policymaking.

The hearings also produced a clearer understanding of what some Members appeared to mean when they invoked the phrase "sound" science.  Apparently, only some kinds of scientific knowledge qualify as "sound" science.  Further, the Majority seems to equate sound science with absolute certainty regarding a particular problem.  By this standard, a substance can only be regulated after we know with absolute certainty that the substance is harmful.  That is an unrealistic and inappropriate standard.  Absolute, final certainty is a rare commodity in science.  When dealing with complex scientific issues, we need to recognize that there will always be a range of uncertainty surrounding any scientific claim of understanding.  Science cannot easily provide definitive answers to complex, real-world problems; problems of this kind provoke probabilistic statements from scientists, not cast-in-stone truths.

Scientific uncertainty is a constant that politicians and policymakers must have the courage to deal with.  Coming to terms with the reality of scientific uncertainty does not, in itself, solve the issue of whether a particular situation demands action.  The decision to act or not to act in a specific case is a policy choice.  Whether we act or not, we need to remain open to further scientific work that may confirm the wisdom of the policy choice or may demonstrate that it was unnecessary.  Science may be able to guide policymakers, but it cannot relieve policymakers of the obligation to make tough policy choices, choices that require a difficult balancing of competing interests.  The Majority's demand for absolute and incontrovertible truth prior to action is a choice to ignore science rather than be counseled by it and an abdication of the responsibility to use the best knowledge available at any given time to serve the common good.

The real debates facing us are not about scientific issues, but about fundamental policy differences which reflect honest disagreements about the values of various competing social goals.  I hope that the 105th Congress will engage these real issues in a more substantive and productive way.

I commend this valuable report to the Members' attention.

Ranking Democratic Member

104th Congress