Improving How Science is Used in Environmental Regulation

Susan Dudley

Effective regulatory policy that focuses resources on addressing real threats to public health and the environment depends on reliable scientific information and transparent policy choices. But often these regulations are the subject of heated debate, involving accusations of “politicized science.”

In a recent teleforum, I suggested that while no one wants science to be “politicized,” no one is immune to the temptation to spin science to advance a pre-determined policy goal. A new working paper I coauthored with Marcus Peacock argues that, while we should be concerned when political decision-makers attempt to distort scientific findings, we should also be concerned when scientists and other analysts attempt to exert influence on policy decisions by how they present scientific information. We focus on this latter phenomenon and identify two problems that current regulatory institutions tend to aggravate.

Using a case study of EPA’s national ambient air quality standards, we show that institutional arrangements in the regulatory development process tend to aggravate this latter problem. They threaten the credibility of the scientific process and harm regulatory policy. Many of those involved in regulatory decisions have incentives to hide policy preferences, such as how to deal with the uncertainty in assessments of risk, and to dismiss and denigrate dissenting views. Key policy choices, disguised as science, too often rest with technical staff; meanwhile, policy makers charged with making hard policy decisions can avoid responsibility by claiming that their hands were tied by “the science.”

Our paper offers ten recommendations for addressing these problems and I summarized a few of them on the recent Federalist Society teleforum.

Susan Dudley

Director, GW Regulatory Studies Center & Distinguished Professor of Practice

Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration, George Washington University


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