On Science & the Fearsome OMB

 Federal agencies are always contemplating new rules (i.e. laws) — or amendments to rules, or waivers of rules, or programs to sidestep rules. To make sure that what one agency (or its subordinate department) does is consistent not only with all other rules, but also with administration policy and budget priorities, an umbrella review of all rules is conducted by Uncle Sam’s bursar: the Office of Management and Budget.

Off the public radar screen, this august bean counter wields fearsome power. It can quash or squash rules. It can eviscerate rules. It can do pretty much what it wants, so long as it duly justifies its actions to the White House.

That’s why a new directive by Barack Obama is so interesting. He’s issuing an executive order, due out tomorrow in the Federal Register, that revokes OMB’s old charter, as pertains to regulatory review. A substitute should be available by summer. Toward that end, the president has, in a separate directive, given the head of OMB, Peter Orszag, 100 days to submit a set of recommendations “for a new Executive Order on federal regulatory review.” 

Sounds kind of dry. But it’s potentially a bombshell.

By May 15 or thereabouts, Orszag — in consultation with other regulatory-agency leaders — is to provide the president with suggestions:
— on what kind of “relationship” should exist between OMB and regulators,
— on the role of cost-benefit analyses in the development of new regulations
— and on how much of the deliberations by either party should be disclosed to the public.

Perhaps most interesting, it asks this review panel to “address the role of . . . fairness and concern for the interests of future generations [and] identify methods of ensuring that regulatory review does not produce undue delay . . .”

Wow. The wording would suggest the goal of this new review is to ensure that OMB serves the people who would be protected by regulations. In the past, it’s always seemed like regulatory reviews had a lot of stalling and editing built in so that the regulated — usually industry types that provide goods and services — didn’t feel the pinch of new laws too quickly or too painfully.

But that’s just my superficial observation of OMB’s role in regulations. The active measures it took — some would say meddling — go much deeper, observes Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public advocacy group.

When I asked how OMB has meddled in regulations, she directed me to a litany of examples that her group compiled affecting the Environmental Protection Agency. A report detailing these that UCS issued nearly a year ago documents, she says, “that too often when regulations come out of the agencies and go to OMB, science is actually changed.”

Isn’t that verboten? If true, it would certainly be unethical.

It’s both, Grifo charges.

“We’re talking about the falsification, fabrication, suppression and censorship of science. We’re not talking about the role of science in public policy. We’re talking about the way that science is changed on its way to that arena. It’s altering science to arrive at a preconceived outcome.”

Grifo’s organization has compiled about 90 examples of this in what it calls an A-to-Z Guide to political interference in federal science. You don’t have to take her assessment of heavy handedness on the part of OMB and other politicos, she says, because the examples “are all documented with primary sources.”

Such interference amounts to “the politicization of science,” she charges. When I asked for an example, Grifo offered lead in lunch boxes.

Manufacturers sometimes add the toxic heavy metal to stabilize the vinyl used in school lunch boxes. To probe the risk to kids, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was given some lunch boxes to test. A researcher was assigned to swab the surface and measure whether any lead rubbed off — as it might if a child handled it. And lots of lead did come off.

A supervisor, concerned about industry pressure to keep these lunch boxes on the market, asked the researcher what would happen if the surface was swabbed a second time. Lead values will drop, the scientist explained, because the most available residues have already been removed. So, Grifo says, the supervisor instructed the scientist: “‘Just keep swiping. And when you’ve swiped it down to zero, take an average and use that — because then it will be at a safe level.’”

Such instructions are often carried out under the direction of OMB, Grifo says. And it’s “because of this sorry track record,” she says, that Orszag “should include the White House science advisor in these discussions [of suggested changes to OMB reviews] to ensure science is appropriately considered when agencies issue new regulations.”

A great idea. Let’s hope John Holdren gets settled into his new post and brought up to speed on such issues. Science might not always support new regulations. But when it does, let’s hope that data — not political pressures exerted on the administration by polluters and wrong-doers — informs those who write and enforce laws to protect us.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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