The Bush Administration and Science

October 7, 2008Duke Law News

Oct. 10, 2008 — One of the country’s foremost experts in administrative procedure and regulatory policy was highly critical of the Bush administration’s approach to regulatory science during a lunchtime presentation at the Law School on Oct. 7.

Sidney Shapiro, University Distinguished Chair in Law and associate dean for Research and Development at Wake Forest University, said that the Bush administration has been criticized in the scientific community for ignoring and distorting scientific results produced by government agencies. He suggested that greater access to unprocessed scientific data, and the creation of purely scientific counterparts to federal regulatory agencies could help insulate science from the political process.

Almost 900 of 1,600 Environmental Protection Agency scientists reported “political interference in their work over the last 5 years,” said Shapiro, vice-president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, a nonprofit research and educational organization of university-affiliated academics. Scientists working for the Food and Drug Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the same problem, he said.

Shapiro also cited a statement signed by more than 12,000 scientists and 52 Nobel Laureates condemning government interference in science during the Bush administration and calling for reform.

“One of the primary ways the Bush administration has politicized science has been to change scientific results, or repress them,” Shapiro said. “Perhaps the most notorious example involves a White House official overemphasizing scientific uncertainty about the human role in global warming, and deemphasizing science that contradicted this view.”

Shapiro gave students a brief overview of the evolution of administrative procedure and regulatory policy in the U.S., beginning with the progressive movement in the 1880s. Progressives promoted the establishment of the civil services and “generally supported expertise as a counter to corruption,” and valued scientific rationalism and worked to insulate science from undesirable political activity, he explained.

“The idea that expertise is a way of reducing political interference in the administrative process remains a foundational idea today,” Shapiro said. “But it’s also clear that the progressives were mistaken that a professionalized bureaucracy was sufficient, in and of itself, to ensure good and accountable government. One reason is that administrators who run regulatory agencies may not follow the advice they are given by scientists. The other reason is that science cannot provide definitive answers to the important questions regulatory agencies must resolve in order to regulate.”

The ongoing process of scientific inquiry clashes with the needs of regulators, who have to make decisions even if scientific data presents no clear conclusions. However, Shapiro noted, some regulatory agencies have crafted policy based on provisional or incomplete data.

Insulating science from political machinations presents a more difficult problem, he explained. Political appointees, from agency heads to federal judges who are sometimes called on to interpret regulatory laws, often make decisions based on political expediency, Shapiro said. “A number of empirical studies correlate the outcome of a case with whether a judge has been appointed by a Republican or Democratic president, that [appointment] used as a proxy for ideology. And results show that ideology is a reliable predictor of a case.”

Shapiro proposed the creation of more agencies like the National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), a science agency created to assist the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). NIOSH scientists don’t even work in the same building as OSHA employees, Shapiro said, which is one of the ways that the science and policy-making aspects are kept separated.

He also proposed eliminating a Freedom of Information Act exemption for “pre-decisional” scientific data created for use by regulatory agencies. Making the raw data available to the public would make it harder for administration officials to ignore or manipulate science for their own ends.

Shapiro’s talk, which can be viewed as a webcast, was the third in the Program in Public Law’s “Lessons Learned” series, a semester-long examination of the Bush administration’s record in diverse areas of law and policy. The series continues Oct. 22 with a consideration of the administration’s approach to civil rights by Professor Goodwin Liu of the University of California - Berkeley.