NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sound Science Questioned

April 22, 2003

Political battles surrounding scientific questions are nothing new, but a new debate has emerged in recent years over "sound science," a phrase used by both presidents Clinton and Bush to describe the basis of their administrations' regulatory decisions.

Not a term used by scientists, sound science has come to mean new rules for determining what kind of scientific evidence can be used to shape regulations. Among lawmakers, it has come to mean a preference for scientific data based on real observations -- rather than models or expert judgment -- that have been heavily peer-reviewed by outside scientists. Among critics, sound science has come to mean the selective use of such data to justify a certain agenda.

Debate over the role of science in public policy has intensified greatly in the past few years:

  • Part of the battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a National Academy of Sciences report found that drilling both helped and hurt the wilderness -- displeased, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, suggested that Congress curtail payments for such reports.
  • A 2001 "sound science" decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to postpone a drop in the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water was rescinded after public outcry.
  • Risk analysis expert John Graham has piled up two "Clean Air Villain of the Month" awards from the Clean Air Trust for his role in the EPA's decision to lower its estimate of the benefits of clean-air controls.

Advocates and critics of sound science agree that scientific method can only provide estimates of risk, not infallible predictions, for most situations. Even with the best information, policymakers still face tough decisions. "Science is important, but no substitute in many cases for human judgment," Graham says. "Science serves to inform that judgment."

Source: Dan Vergano, "Hook, line and sinker," USA TODAY, April 22, 2003.


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