This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science

Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?

Scientific American asks leaders of a dozen House and Senate committees for written answers to eight policy questions related to science and technology

Science in Public Policy. We live in an era when science and technology affect every aspect of life and society, and so must be included in well-informed public policy decisions. How will you ensure that policy and regulatory decisions are fully informed by the best available scientific and technical information, and that the public is able to evaluate the basis of these policy decisions?

Representative Timothy Bishop, New York State–1 (D) and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, writes:

During these times of shrinking budgets, data driven decisions are critical to ensure that scarce federal resources are used effectively. To that end, maximizing transparency, encouraging public participation, and relying on the best science available is essential to developing and executing good public policies. I strongly support efforts to ensure that the legislative and regulatory processes are open to public scrutiny and uphold the strongest scientific principles. 

Representative John Boehner, Ohio–8 (R) and speaker of the House, declined to respond to the eight science questions. Given the specific nature of this question on science in public policy, we have not found related public statements as of press time.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, California (D) and chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, writes:

I believe public policy should be based on the best science available. Whether the policies are related to the economy, health care, the environment or any other area, politics should not interfere with science. One example is medical research, which I believe must be the foundation for improving health care and producing innovative and more cost-effective treatments. I have long been a proponent for biomedical research and believe such efforts hold tremendous promise to revolutionize health care, not to mention create jobs and bolster the economy. Science must drive public policy as much as possible, and I will continue to act on that belief.

Representative Ralph Hall, Texas–4 (R) and chair of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, writes:

Ensuring transparency of and access to relevant scientific and technical data should be a core principle of Federal regulatory and policy-making processes. For the public to be able to evaluate policy decisions that are based on scientific information, this information must first be accessible to the public. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has paid lip service to these ideals, while in practice demonstrating a willingness to make decisions based on flawed, outcome-driven, and often secret science in order to pursue its out-of-control regulatory agenda.

For example, the courts recently struck down the flawed and potentially disastrous Cross State Air Pollution Rule, a regulatory action that would have destroyed jobs in my home state of Texas and was based solely on a proprietary "black box model" built on technical input and assumptions kept hidden from stakeholders and the public. Similarly, as the Chairman of the Science Committee, I have listened as witnesses testified that the primary data used to justify most EPA air regulations remains unavailable to the public, kept in secret and shielded from scientific scrutiny.  Unfortunately, rules and regulations promulgated by the Obama Administration threaten American jobs and economic recovery, and cost billions while providing questionable benefits; yet these rules cannot be properly evaluated because their underlying assumptions and projections are based on secret data and models hidden from the public.

Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa (D) and chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, writes:

I agree that science and technology are pervasive in our lives and society today, and I am distressed with the ignorance or even denial of critical scientific findings in some instances of policy formulation. The most important answer is better science and technology education at all levels, especially in our schools and through our media. I applaud those scientists who strive to add effective public communication to their professional duties, and those educators who are leading the charge for expanding and improving S&T education at all levels. 

Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky (R) and Senate minority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. Given the specific nature of this question on science in public policy, we have not found related public statements as of press time.

Representative John Mica, Florida–7 (R) and chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, writes:

We can ensure that the best scientific data and technologies are used in public policy decisions by maintaining our free and open society and press and by drawing on the best available public and private sector resources. Public input and evaluation remains fundamental to the health of our democracy. We must maintain an educated and informed public and continue to expand transparency.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, California–8 (D) and House minority leader, declined to respond to this question. Given the specific nature of this question on science in public policy, we have not found related public statements as of press time.

Senator Harry Reid, Nevada (D) and Senate majority leader, did not respond to the eight science questions by press time. Given the specific nature of this question on science in public policy, we have not found related public statements as of press time.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia (D) and chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, writes:

Collaboration between our leading experts in science and technology and Congress and federal agencies is the only way that public policy decisions will be made using sound science. The work we perform on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee reaches across many disciplines. When drafting policy or regulations, we need to solicit advice from a spectrum of experts—from universities, nonprofits, industry, or scientific and professional societies—who deal in the issues every day.

For example, the National Academy of Sciences, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Washington Post, and many others have all called for strengthened forensic science and standards. We met with many stakeholders and scientific experts to determine best practices to bring twenty-first century advancements in technology and testing to forensic science. The result of this effort was the Forensic Science and Standards Act, which would direct the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop forensic science standards in consultation with standards development organizations. The standards would be implemented by a committee comprised of research scientists, forensic science practitioners, and members of the legal and law enforcement agencies, along with the Attorney General and the Director of NIST, to ensure they adhere to science-based priorities. The process we went through to develop the legislation is an example of how Congress can work directly with experts to create policy based on the latest scientific and technological information.

At the same time, the scientific integrity of agencies should remain sacrosanct. Scientific and technical information plays a significant role in the development of public policy, making it important that the scientific advice provided to policymakers is both impartial and of the highest integrity. In 2009, the President, through the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), required that each agency develop a scientific integrity policy specific to their agency mission and needs. The goal is to ensure that technical rigor and transparency are maintained while protecting science from political interference across administrations. Since 2009, more than 20 federal agencies have submitted drafts to OSTP for review and release for public comment. In February, OSTP announced that it had completed its review of scientific integrity policies submitted by the agencies and found that each one met or exceeded the minimum requirements.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Maryland–8 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on the Budget, writes:

I believe that scientific discovery and technology should lay the foundation for our policy and regulatory decision-making. It is critical that our national research agencies support independent, high quality scientific research and make use of extensive peer-review and evaluation processes.  As Congress develops public policy, I will continue to engage and seek counsel from our world class scientists and technicians working at the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute on Standards and Technology, and other federal agencies. Throughout this process, I'm committed to sharing information with the public, facilitating meaningful dialogue, and providing an opportunity for feedback on policy proposals. 

Representative Henry Waxman, California–30 (D) and ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, writes:

Effective policies must be informed by the best scientific and technical information available. When policymakers reject the science, the result is bad policy. Unfortunately, science-denial seems to be the norm on Capitol Hill these days.

The Republican denial of climate change science is a prime example of this irresponsible approach. According to the eminent scientific journal Nature, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have taken positions on climate change that are "fundamentally anti-science" and the result of "willful ignorance," making it "hard to escape the conclusion that the U.S. Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness." Notwithstanding the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is a serious threat, House Republicans unanimously supported a bill, H.R. 910, to overturn EPA's scientific finding that climate change endangers public health and welfare. During the floor debate on H.R. 910, I offered an amendment that stated, "Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare." All but one House Republican voted to reject these scientific findings.

Many House Republicans explained their rejection of EPA's scientific findings by stating their view that the science is "not settled." At the same time, House Republicans have voted to cut funding for climate research that could provide more insight into the pace and likely impacts of climate change. They have also refused to hold hearings to better understand the overwhelming body of existing scientific evidence showing that climate change is occurring.

Policymakers cannot address serious problems such as climate change by denying their existence. Congress should be holding hearings with the nation's top scientists to understand the problems we face so that we can design sensible policies to tackle those problems. I have repeatedly requested these hearings. So far, the Republican leaders I have written have not even bothered to respond. It is a deplorable record.

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Does Congress Get a Passing Grade on Science?


This article was originally published with the title "Why Science Is Better When It's Multinational."

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