Distinguishing scientific advice and policy decisions

17 August 2009

A US report focusing on the need to draw clearer distinctions between scientific advice and policy decisions was released earlier this month by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit body based in Washington, (reported by Nature news). The Centre’s Science for Policy Project co-chair Sherwood Boehlert explained: “Often, policy disputes are cast as fights over science.  This damages the credibility of science and obscures the real issues that ought to be debated" (see press release).

The final report contains recommendations and proposes specific procedures on how scientific results could be used in developing regulatory policies in the US. The recommendations were drawn up by a diverse panel of experts from government, academia, business and non-profit organisations and are aimed at addressing claims that science in the US is being politicised and regulation lacks a strong scientific basis.

The report calls for the US Administration to ensure that federal agencies explicitly differentiate between questions that involve scientific judgements and those that involve judgements about other matters of policy (e.g. ethics, economics), and also calls on the federal government and members of the scientific community (scientists, journals, universities) to strengthen the peer-review process in order to improve the use of science in regulatory processes. This could be achieved by expanding the available information on scientific studies and setting standards governing conflict of interest. In addition, the panel produced a number of detailed recommendations about the formation and use of scientific advisory committees, including setting requirements for disclosure and dealing with conflicts of interest and bias.

It is hoped that the recommendations will make the regulatory process more rigorous and transparent, and that “when there are disagreements, officials and the public will have a clearer sense of what they are about”.

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