School & District Management

Science and Policy Shouldn’t Mix, Panel Says

By Debra Viadero — August 07, 2009 2 min read
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Accusations of a “politicization” of science in federal regulatory policy are a continual refrain in Washington. Now, an independent, bipartisan panel has some recommendations on how President Obama and his successors can avoid those debates in the future.

In a report this week, the 13 members of the Science for Policy project contend that many such disputes arise from a failure to distinguish scientific questions from policy questions.

“Science can inform some policy choices, but it can’t determine them,” says the group, which was headed by Sherwood Boehlert, a retired Republican congressman from New York, and Donald Kennedy, a former editor-in-chief of the journal Science. To avoid any suggestion of political bias, the report contends, federal agencies and lawmakers ought to promulgate guidelines to differentiate between questions that involve scientific judgment and those that involve judgments about economics, ethics, and other matters of policy.

“The first impulse of those concerned with regulatory policy should not be to claim `the science made me do it’ or to dismiss or discount scientific results, but rather to publicly discuss the policies and values that legitimately affect how science gets applied in decisionmaking,” the report says.

If you haven’t heard of this group, don’t feel bad. I only just heard about it via a tweet from Greg Toppo of USA Today, which carried a story on the report on Wednesday. The panel is diverse, though, and includes people from industry, universities, and national organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, that give a lot of thought to these kinds of questions. There’s no one from education land, but the group’s advice easily applies to the education sciences, too. The group was pulled together by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group formed by four retired senators to provide a forum for developing nonpartisan solutions to national problems.

Among its other recommendations, the panel calls for federal guidelines on when to consult scientific advisory panels and who can be on them, more transparency on how panelists filter and evaluate the studies they use in their deliberations, stronger peer-review procedures, and improvement in setting and enforcing clear standards governing conflicts of interest.

That last topic appeared to be the most controversial for the group. The panel specifically recommends that, when considering whether a conflict exists for a potential advisory committee appointee, officials should look back two years rather than just looking at the expert’s current relationships. Two panel members disagreed. Here’s why: Suppose a scientist was paid 18 months ago to provide expert testimony in a court case. If the proceedings are finished, the dissenters reasoned, the scientist should no longer feel compromised.

This is a readable report, with lots of good specifics and illustrative hypotheticals. Whether the group’s advice will get adopted by federal agencies, including the Department of Education, is another question.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.