How to obtain, and then apply, the best available science to regulatory policy can be controversial. Commentators have differing views as to what “best available science” actually means. There is general agreement, however, about having in place a rigorous regulatory process that encourages open and transparent scientific debate, in which methods are clear and consistent, and assumptions and data widely shared. In this way, the process is likely to produce reasonable and defensible policy results.
John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, wrote, “Successful application of science in public policy depends on the integrity of the scientific process both to ensure the validity of the information itself and to engender public trust in government.” Yet exactly how that process should be defined and structured remains an ongoing debate. That debate involves a host of questions: how should particular studies be chosen and then considered? To what degree should the studies’ underlying data and assumptions be open to scrutiny and widely shared? What role should advisory bodies play, and how can conflicts be avoided? What constitutes “junk science” or “politicized science,” and how can it be avoided? More broadly, what role should science play in influencing policy?
Despite some nuanced, and even profound, disagreement about the answers to these questions, there is nevertheless some general agreement on the basics. For instance, observers generally agree on preventing scientific bias from distorting policy. Bias—described variously as “junk science,” “paid for science,” or “advocacy science”—often leads to pre-determined outcomes, which favor or support a particular partisan or ideological viewpoint. Such science is, as former EPA scientist Robert Lackey observed, “a corruption of the practice of good science.” He defines bias as “information that is developed, presented or interpreted based on an assumed, usually unstated, preference for a particular policy choice.”
As some observers have noted, even well-intentioned civil servants can subconsciously seek out science that confirms their own bias while ignoring scientific evidence that contradicts their beliefs. However, making policy choices on the one hand, and interpreting and understanding science on the other, are two distinct realms and should be clearly presented as such to the public.