“I thought Galileo dealt with this,” commented Ranking Member Heidi Heitkamp (ND) at a hearing of the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, referring to recent attention paid to outlandish celebrity social media posts. She continued, “We can’t be swimming outside the lanes so far that we have a reasonable dialogue about the Earth being flat.” While this flat-Earth claim is obviously false, the separation between fact and opinion has been a major topic in politics this year and in the science policymaking realm in particular.
This week’s hearing marks a continuation of an in-depth review of the rulemaking process the subcommittee began two years ago, this time focused on how agencies use scientific information to inform their regulatory decision-making. Members discussed the politicization of science and how agencies can separate science from policy. Chairman James Lankford (OK), who introduced a series of bills (S.584, S.580, S.579, S.578, S.577) on the subject the day before the hearing, said agencies should “rely on the best available information,” then “make decisions based on the weight of that information.” Ranking Member Heitkamp stressed that there must be a balance between accessibility and transparency and that it may not be possible to “determine a single methodology to achieve scientific results that works across the entire federal enterprise.”
Witnesses agreed that public access to science that underlies policies is important but gave mixed recommendations. Ms. Susan Dudley (Director, George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center) pointed to problems when lawmakers distort science and argued that scientists (intentionally or not) express policy preferences in their advice. She suggested creating a regulatory process that differentiates for the public and lawmakers the aspects concerning scientific results and those of policy. Dr. Andrew Rosenberg (Director, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists) agreed that transparency is essential but warned that legislating which science is considered “best available” removes the very process of science from scientists. He pointed to the successful recovery of fish stocks in the coastal Atlantic and how it was important to act “once the weight of evidence is compelling enough to justify reasonable, evidence-based policy solutions.” Dr. Nancy Beck (Senior Director of Regulatory Science Policy, American Chemistry Council) concluded, “The solution is in clarity and transparency.” Though the hearing ended, the discussion continues this week when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will vote on the controversial REINS Act (S. 21) and the Midnight Rules Relief Act (S. 34) that aim to reform federal rulemaking.