Law Revises Standards for Scientific Study
March 21, 2002
Law Revises Standards for Scientific Study
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
t does not even take effect until next Oct. 1. But a little-noticed
law called the Data Quality Act, signed in the waning days of the
Clinton administration, has set off a fierce debate over how best to
weigh health and environmental risks.
The law supported, and largely written, by industry-backed groups
requires the government for the first time to set standards for
the quality of scientific information and statistics used and
disseminated by federal agencies. It would create a system in every
government agency under which anyone could point out errors in
documents and regulations.
If the complaints were borne out, the agency would have to expunge
the data from government Web sites and publications. More broadly,
opponents of the new law say that while nobody wants the government
to issue flawed data, the new process could undermine valid
regulations and stifle government efforts to convey information on
issues like climate change and cancer risks.
The National Academy of Sciences is convening a meeting today at
which officials from government regulatory agencies, lawyers and
experts from industry, science and environmental groups will discuss
the law's potential for harm and good.
Even before the law takes effect, one of the groups that helped
write it has already cited it in a petition requesting the
withdrawal of a report on global warming.
The group, the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, said in a Feb.
11 letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
that a government assessment of the regional impacts of climate
change is alarmist and based on flawed computer models.
If the center prevails, the study the product of 10 years of work
and critiques by independent scientists could be removed from
government Web sites and files. Many climate scientists, even some
whose criticisms of early drafts were quoted in the center's
petition, say the challenge is unfounded.
The Data Quality Act was quietly enacted in December 2000 as 27
lines in a giant budget bill.
It charged the government to create procedures "ensuring and
maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity" of
scientific information and statistics disseminated by federal
agencies. Now, dozens of government agencies are struggling to
translate that language into thousands of pages of quality-control
Agencies must finish drafts of their science quality procedures by
May 1 and send the final version to the White House Office of
Management and Budget by July, where the Bush administration will
check to be sure guidelines meet its standards.
The effort is being overseen by Dr. John D. Graham, an expert on
risk and regulation from Harvard who last year became the
administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs of
the Office of Management and Budget. Dr. Graham's focus on using
strict statistical analysis of risks and benefits to judge where to
focus public resources has made him a favorite of industry and a
target of private environmental groups, which often rely on public
passion to drive campaigns.
He said that the administration's goal was to ensure that all
government agencies in every duty consider not just the quality
of the data they use and communicate, but also the quality of their
The result, he said, is that "in the long run this will focus
government on problems that science suggests are very serious and
away from problems that are less serious."
The prospect has industry officials elated. Many of those who helped
draft the measure defend it as a vital breakthrough in their
years-long effort to pinpoint weaknesses in the science behind
"This is the biggest sleeper there is in the regulatory area and
will have an impact so far beyond anything people can imagine," said
William L. Kovacs, the vice president for environment, technology
and regulatory affairs of the United States Chamber of Commerce.
"This is the first time where, if the data is not good, you can
actually begin challenging the agency," Mr. Kovacs said. The law, by
setting a government standard for scientific quality, could also
help industry prevail in lawsuits claiming rules relied on poor data
or analysis, he and other industry representatives say.
A prime target, he and other industry representatives said, is new
Environmental Protection Agency rules restricting the finest
pollution particles, which are mainly emitted by diesel engines and
power plants and have been linked increasingly to lung and heart
Many industry officials say the rule is too broad and the E.P.A.
should first find which types of small particles are hazardous.
Supporters of the regulations, which have not yet taken effect, say
it would take years of additional study to pinpoint the exact
hazard, but people are dying from such pollution now.
Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who is chairman
of the Senate environment committee, said the goal of the law is
laudable, but it could easily work against effective government.
"Opponents of government action to protect the public's health and
the environment," Mr. Jeffords said, "have latched on to the Data
Quality Act and are attempting to misuse it to prevent the public
from getting valid information about threats to their well being and
quality of life."
Following guidelines written by the Bush administration, government
agencies are creating procedures for judging the quality of the data
they use whether generated within the government or by university
scientists, hospital researchers, companies or private groups.
The more influential the data are likely to be, the higher the
quality standard they must meet, the guidelines say. In some cases,
the guidelines state, even studies published in respected
peer-reviewed journals will require further confirmation.
Under the data law, by October every agency must have the equivalent
of a complaints line, through which individuals, companies or groups
can challenge scientific findings.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday initiated a four-day
online comment process on its Web site, www.epa.gov/oei, seeking
ideas for how it might best create such a system.
Some scientific groups are concerned that insufficient attention has
been paid to the new regulation and its likely effects.
"This is a critical juncture," said Joanne Padrón-Carney, director
of the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest
scientific organization. "Each agency will be clarifying its own
methods for how they define things like quality. It's important for
scientists to pay close attention."
Ms. Carney said there was potential for problems if industries or
institutions opposed to certain regulations demanded complicated,
time-consuming, intrusive reviews of data.
"We really would not like to have science attacked as a way of being
sure that policy isn't made," she said.
Views remain mixed on whether the benefits of the law will outweigh
the potential harm.
Alan B. Morrison, a lawyer on leave from Public Citizen, the private
consumer watchdog group in Washington, said the law could provide
unexpected opportunities for critics of any government agency from
the Defense Department to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
It applies just as much to data released by the Pentagon as it does
to E.P.A. pollution studies, Mr. Morrison noted.
But over all, he said, he is convinced that "its clear purpose is to
slow agencies down."
Many experts on regulations say that if the guidelines are written
appropriately, they could spur agencies to carefully, openly review
the quality of science used to write rules or set policies in
Currently, in most cases, a pollution or health standard is
published and only then the fighting begins over whether it is valid
or not, said Frederick R. Anderson, a corporate lawyer in Washington
who is part of the National Academy of Sciences panel conducting the
Often, such fights spill over into the courts, resulting in years of
Dr. Graham said he expected that the guidelines, instead of
burdening agencies with new costs and work, would reduce the burden
by cutting the number of such lawsuits.
But some architects of the legislation say they expect it will help
them in the courtroom. Most notable is James J. Tozzi, the founder
of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness.
With a government-set yardstick for quality, Mr. Tozzi said, critics
of regulations can now build more convincing cases showing that an
agency was arbitrary and capricious in its choice of data. Until
now, such suits have generally failed.
The most important aspect of the law, he said, is that it creates a
consistent system for uncovering errors early and encouraging
agencies to be more careful about how they use data.
"It's the information age," Mr. Tozzi said. "Now in the world's most
powerful government you're going to have to issue information that's
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