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Restoring Scientific Integrity to Government Decision-Making | Commentary

The aim of scientific research is to increase our understanding beyond what is already known. When scientific research is used to shape government policy, it assumes a special obligation — it becomes the glue of a contract between the public, the research community and government.

Four years ago, President Barack Obama recognized the importance of cultivating an environment that encourages scientific integrity. In 2009 he directed agencies to develop procedures “for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.” Now, the House-passed farm bill includes a provision that will build upon the administration’s initiative to codify the requirement.

Should agencies use sound science when making rules?

The National Pork Producers, the Cherry Marketing Institute, and even Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s home state Farm Bureau see the need for sound science and have contacted us regarding scientific research issues affecting regulations with a direct impact on agriculture. We think that is a cause that can unite Republicans and Democrats, as it did when the House passed its version of the farm bill that is now in conference. Better yet, it is a commonsense approach that can also unite business interests and NGOs across the spectrum — groups focused on issues that also range across the spectrum.

Four years after the departments and agencies were called upon to develop policies, the law is needed because the result of the president’s memorandum is a patchwork of inconsistent approaches that reflects an inconstant commitment to scientific integrity.

The scientific integrity provision attempts to address some of the inadequacies of the plans highlighted by many, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It builds on the administration’s initiative by calling on each federal agency to develop guidelines regarding scientific information. It clarifies that scientific information should be supported by peer review when appropriate; ensures that scientific studies used in making decisions be disclosed to the public; and requires an opportunity for stakeholder input.

It is also important to say what the scientific integrity provision does not do. It is not a radical change.

It is not a roadblock to regulation — it simply assures that all agencies have the best policies possible. It will not require a change in the type of studies that government agencies rely upon — but it will put a premium on studies that can be replicated. Nor does it force judges to adjudicate scientific issues — it just assures that agencies follow their own written procedures.

The provision is needed now for two interrelated reasons. Continuing the administration’s efforts to stress scientific integrity comes at a time when public trust in government is at an all-time low. Simultaneously, we are at a time when scientific research is critical in so many areas, such as safeguarding our food system.

Not all scientific research is made equal, and we agree that all federal departments and agencies should have well-developed scientific integrity policies.

Increased public support for science and research has been accompanied by an increased interest in how such research is conducted. With scientific integrity guidelines in place, Americans will better understand the justification for new policy decisions, and decisions will be made with transparency in accordance with the scientific method.

Rep. Stephen Fincher is a Republican from Tennessee, and Rep. Mike McIntyre is a Democrat from North Carolina. Both are members of the House Agriculture Committee.

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