Friday, January 16, 2004

Junk Science

[A] Bush administration plan would require new health and environmental regulations to rely more solidly on science that has been peer-reviewed.
Doesn't that sound like a good idea? Isn't peer review one of the major foundations of the scientific process?

Well, no. Or at least, not like this.

Research that's published in scientific journals has already been peer-reviewed. When a scientist submits an article for publication, the journal editor sends the article out to several experts in the field, who critique the method of conducting the study and the interpretations of the results, looking for flaws, errors, and overstatements. Typically, at least some of the reviewers are the author's major scientific rivals. Once the article appears in print, further peer review occurs in the forms of letters, commentaries, and review articles by other scientists. It's a brutal but thorough process.

But the Administration doesn't mean this system at all. They mean to set up a new layer of peer review, which will occur not in the independent community of scientists but under the auspices of the White House Office of Management and Budget. And they mean to heavily slant the peer review process towards industry-funded scientists.
It lays out specific rules regarding who can sit on peer review panels -- rules that, to critics' dismay, explicitly discourage the participation of academic experts who have received agency grants but offer no equivalent warnings against experts with connections to industry. And it grants the executive branch final say as to whether the peer review process was acceptable.
Governmental agencies are a major, dominant source of research funding in the United States. Excluding researchers who have received grants from the government quite simply means excluding most independent researchers.

Imagine a "peer review" devoted to the question of whether some chemical process increases cancer risk. Researchers funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences would be completely excluded from participation, and the task of reviewing the adequacy of the scientific evidence would fall instead to researchers in the pay of, for example, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers. The White House would be the sole arbiter of whether the peer review was fair.

Rep. Henry Waxman has been doing a yeoman's job of documenting the distortion and perversion of science under the Bush Administration. This is a fairly subtle example, and likely to slip under the radar despite the number of scientists and former regulators who are opposed. They've hijacked an undisputed scientific good, peer review, and used that language to cloak their industry bias in respectability. If these new rules go into effect, you can expect to see forty years of environmental and health standards quietly rolled back. It will be a public safety disaster.