March 02, 2015

Nobody likes Congress. And that’s not much of an exaggeration—only 16% of Americans hold a favorable view of the United States Congress—while 46% approve of the President. The high-jinx that played out last week which almost saw the House defund much of the Department of Homeland Security over disagreement with the executive branch over the legality of President Obama’s executive order on immigration will certainly not help matters. Threats of shutdown and actual shutdowns have become almost commonplace—so much so that most Americans, regardless of party affiliation, roll their eyes at the pettiness and ineptitude that seems to define the modern U.S. Congress.   

These very public showdowns certainly do not bolster confidence in the institution nor are they a cost-effective way to run a government. The scholar in me is just as concerned about the assault on standards of knowledge that occurs off camera though. 

A piece of legislation that passed the House last November in the previous Congressional session offers a telling example. Congressman Christopher Stewart (R-UT) introduced H.R. 1422, The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, and it passed the Republican House 229-191 on almost a straight party-line vote. At root, the Act altered the composition of the Scientific Advisory Board (SBA) to the Environmental Protection Agency to include more industry representatives  and, as Linday Abrams reported,

the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest. “In other words,” wrote Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew A. Rosenberg in an editorial for RollCall, “academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”

The bill was not taken up by the Senate and the White House made clear the President would veto the legislation.  

But the fact that this bill made it through the House of Representatives at all matters as it is an assault on the logico-empical foundations of scientific knowledge. In science, one does not report what “they like,” "what they feel,” or their "hunch.” Rather, the core of science and social science is method.  Academics have systematic methods for testing and building theory, subject their hypotheses to rigorous testing and observation, go where systematically gathered data takes us, and have a responsibility to report all findings and methods in a fashion that can be replicated.

Scientific research is conducted by humans who are sometimes fallible but the methods and scholarly commitments to following them come to approximate truth for some and more all-encompassing theories for most.  The community of scholars and replication are constant checks to findings. Science and social science stands unique from journalistic opinion or political debates in these defining commitments.  Our contribution is the research.

So in this bill, House Republicans called into question the very standards of knowledge that brought us the Enlightenment. Congressman Stewart’s legislation sought a “balance” of researchers and industry backed representatives who have an undeniable financial investment in the findings. It barred scientists, but not these industry representatives, from weighing in on the very subjects on which they have painstaking researched. This is akin to asking Pedro Martinez for advice about your swim team or Bill Gates’ take on k-pop. You go to the experts for their expertise.    

True, the legislation did not pass. But public policy scholarship shows us that proposal matters almost as much as policy adoption does--if for different reasons.  Proposing seemingly ludicrous legislation makes the insane seem increasingly possible by “softening up” the policy terrain.  It bestows legitimacy on ideas – like barring scientists on the SBA of advising on their research to the EPA – that were untenable a few years prior.  Proposals gets the foot in the door.

And the proposal here is an assault on standards of knowledge. Balance is bias when scientific rigor, hunches, and financial reward are treated the same.

congressional approval, epa, congress, epistemology

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