Monday, December 08, 2003

The Data Quality Act: Industry and Bush Officials Act As If They Really Care About Data Quality

This is long and appears somewhat complicated, but it's really a preview of the arguments that affected industries will be using to chip away at existing worker, consumer and environmental protections and keeping others from ever being enacted.

We last wrote about the Data Quality Act when a management lawfirm used it to argue for elimination of EPA's guidance warning workers about the dangers of asbestos-containing brake linings.

The DQA was written by business interests and buried in a giant appropriations bill in the waning days of the Clinton administration. It requires that government funded studies, on which regulations, guidance and informational materials are based, should be peer reviewed only by independent scientists. The dangers of the DQA are being discussed today all over Blogland, and even recently in the Wall St. Journal which incredulously asks "Who could possibly oppose this quality control? You'd be surprised. Some health officials, academics and consumer groups say peer review can impede regulations meant to protect public safety."

And why would there possibly be any opposition to "data quality?" The bottom line is this: Business/Bush interests are using the Data Quality Act to argue that only "studies" that are "peer reviewed" by businesses can be used by government when deciding whether to issue a regulation or informational documents. Anyone who has ever done work for the government agency addressing the hazard cannot be objective, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which takes care of most university scientists, leaving only the industry scientists to "objectively" evaluate the harm their products mayh be causing to workers, other users or the environment.

Misuse of science and peer review is particularly dangerous as business interests have been successful lately convincing politicians and the general public that all regulatory initiatives (from ergonomics to pesticide regulation) is based on "junk science."

A few excerpts from today's Blogs. First, from Chris Mooney:
As the testimony of former Clinton administration Energy official and George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels shows, the guidelines are very troubling. Michaels' complaint is that under the guise of "peer review," industry sponsored or funded attempts to undermine good science are going to get a big boost. That's for a number of reasons, one of them being the key question of who will be doing the peer reviewing.

The current guidelines say that as far as peer review goes, scientists who have worked for government have a conflict of interest and can't participate, but scientists who have worked for industry have carte blanche. As Michaels puts it, the suggestion "that academic scientists are more beholden to public funding agencies than corporate funders is on face ludicrous." And there's more. The peer review guidelines play into clever industry strategies for using the system of science to advance their economic interests.
More from CalPundit
The Data Quality Act, inserted quietly into an appropriations bill by a Republican lawmaker near the end of the Clinton administration, contains what appears to be a benign requirement: government funded studies should be peer reviewed only by independent scientists. The problem is that "independent" means scientists who are not also funded by the government, and as Anthony Robbins writes in the Boston Globe:
To grasp the implications of this radical departure, one must recognize that in the United States there are effectively two pots of money that support science: one from government and one from industry. (A much smaller contribution comes from charitable foundations.) If one excludes scientists supported by the government, including most scientists based at universities, the remaining pool of reviewers will be largely from industry -- corporate political supporters of George W. Bush.
The net result of the DQA is to reduce the influence of academic scientists and increase the influence of industry-backed scientists under the Alice in Wonderland notion that academic scientists are somehow less trustworthy. In plain English, scientists who work for tobacco companies ought to be the ones to review cigarette research and scientists who work for chemical companies ought to be the ones to pass judgment on environmental research.
So, this is all very bad stuff.

But, people are fighting back. GWU Prof David Michaels, who was mentioned above, sponsored a resolution adopted recently the American Public Health Association and highlighted in a Wall St. Journal article
Last month, the American Public Health Association announced its opposition to OMB's proposal, arguing that "public-health decisions must be made in the absence of scientific certainty, or in the absence of perfect information." And at a recent workshop at the National Academy of Sciences, it wasn't only the usual suspects, like Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, who voiced concern. So did pillars of the science establishment.

John Bailar, a leading biostatistician and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, described himself as "greatly concerned about the potential for mischief" in the proposal. Climatologist Warren Washington, chair of the National Science Board, said "there could be opportunities for directing science in a way that is not in the public interest." Because science entails judgment, Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard University told me, she doubts peer review such as OMB envisions would produce better regulatory science.
[Update: And while you're at it, more here by Eric Alterman.]

This is all a lot to read and digest right now. But we will be seeing it again and again as affected industries attempt to unravel whatever government protections now exist, and (should the good guys ever return to power), use it to fight the "scientific basis" of any new regulatory initiatives.