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  • The Separation of Scientific Powers

    Posted by Shannon Love on October 30th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has flagged an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use test data from companies and other existing data in judging whether chemicals found in pesticides and plastics could disrupt the human endocrine system, which releases hormones.[source]

    I suspect that the OMB is actually suggesting that the EPA use all scientific data regardless of source. US regulatory agencies have long suffered from “not invented here” syndrome in that they rather routinely reject valid scientific data that originates from any source outside themselves. For example, they often refuse to use data generated by European regulatory agencies even though the standards of those agencies are just as good as ours.

    However, I think he has a point (echoing Adam Smith) that data is suspect when it comes from companies that have an economic incentive to downplay the dangers of their products. However, Markey and others like him do not see that the EPA and other regulatory agencies have the same kind of built-in conflicts of interest as companies do.

    Since the EPA’s budget and scope of powers depend on the degree of environmental hazard believed to exist, the EPA has a built-in institutional bias towards exaggerating dangers that is every bit as strong as the bias of profit-driven companies to underplay dangers. Worse, as a political creation, the EPA is subject to ideological pressure from politicians, lobbyists and activists across the political spectrum.

    We should divide the EPA, and every other regulatory agency, into two departments that are entirely separated all the way up to and including the level of cabinet secretary. One department would be responsible for regulation while the other will be responsible for doing the science upon which the regulation depends. We might even go so far as to create a Department of Science which would perform scientific research for all regulatory agencies. Only then could we be assured that the science upon which we base our regulations would not be contaminated by institutional biases one way or the other.

    As the scope and power of government have grown, we have neglected the concept of the division of powers, even though the Founders and history judge this concept absolutely vital to maintaining freedom. Today, each regulatory agency is its own little fiefdom and many are far larger than the entire Federal government was even 80 years ago. Yet we’ve never applied the Founders’ wisdom about the separation of powers to these vast and powerful organizations.

    We need to start doing so.

     

    6 Responses to “The Separation of Scientific Powers”

    1. tehag Says:

      Good luck with that–seriously.

      Count me skeptical.I don’t think that the corruption and subversion of science by politics, a mutual undertaking of “scientists” who want fame and money and power, but not accuracy (Ehrlich, Hanson, etc.) and politicians, for whom popularity and corruption are their life’s blood, can be fixed by yet another giant government bureaucracy.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      Tehag,

      …can be fixed by yet another giant government bureaucracy.

      Actually, I had in mind just reorganizing the existing scientist into another department.

    3. Dan @ israeli Uncensored News Says:

      On other hand, EPA routinely uses both verifiably spotty data and outright dishonest algos on global warming

    4. Whitehall Says:

      I will give credit to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They of course err on the conservative side of safety but they do a lot of cooperative work with industry and foreign sources.

      The elevation of Harry Reid’s assistant to NRC chairman bears watching though. This guy also used to be on Markey’s staff. However, so far he’s been too dorky to do any overtly political stuff.

    5. Anonymous Says:

      We should divide the EPA, and every other regulatory agency, into two departments that are entirely separated….[W]e’ve never applied the Founders’ wisdom about the separation of powers to these vast and powerful organizations.

      We need to start doing so.

      Can I say Heinlein meets Crichton?

      Science divided and separated from its regulators. I think the primary argument against it is duplication, which increases cost. This, especially, applies to Crichton’s proposal, if I recall correctly: this appears to lessen that somewhat.

      a Department of Science which would perform scientific research for all regulatory agencies. Only then could we be assured that the science upon which we base our regulations would not be contaminated by institutional biases one way or the other.

      Still, there are institutional motives to be slow and spread the work and increase bureaucratic reach.

      There is a larger problem today: no one even bothers to debate these issues. Do bureaucracies really work with science – or is the free market simply superior? As Ayn Rand averred in “Atlas Shrugged,” “free scientific inquiry” is redundant, while “government science” is a contradiction in terms.

      Nonetheless, the Terence Kealey’s “The Economic Laws of Scientific research was reviewed in Reason, Feb. 1997. The reviewer, John Staddon, closed with similar pessimism:

      Unfortunately, defenders of the [statist and interventionist] status quo [in government funded science] seem reluctant to engage in debate. After describing his own repeated attempts to defend a position similar to Kealey’s, physicist Roy recently commented: “I have yet to find one similarly reasoned book or paper replying to these arguments.” It’s time to hear a detailed refutation from those who believe that American science lives or dies by the present system.

    6. Shannon Love Says:

      Do bureaucracies really work with science – or is the free market simply superior?

      It really doesn’t matter which is superior, I doubt in the short term political climate, you could get anyone to trust a private source of safety research. Moreover, how would you pay for it?

      We don’t have a means of converting basic facts into property and therefore no means of funding the production of facts. If you discover that chemical X is perfectly safe to use under such and such conditions, how do you get people to pay you for doing that? Even if you could sell the information to one person, how would you prevent it from being broadcast all over the world within minutes?

      It’s the old economic conundrum of the weather service. It cost a lot to collect the data to make a prediction but once the prediction is made there is no practical way to turn the prediction into property and force people to exchange something of value for the information. This creates an enormous free-rider problem.

      The free-market isn’t magic. It requires specific mechanism to be in place and working before the market can function.