Friday, November 21, 2014

Nice try Salon

This over-wrought story about a recently passed bill on science advisory board sure sounds scary. The House (Republican controlled, natch) doesn't want scientific experts to serve on that board.

True?

The bill looks unobjectionable, if you read it, and don't uncritically rely on the Salon piece.

Consider this section:

  ``(E) Board members may not participate in advisory

        activities that directly or indirectly involve review or

        evaluation of their own work;

  And how that is portrayed by Salon:

In what might be the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing, 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.”

 Emphases mine.

Notice the elided words:

Review or Evaluation.

This does not forbid a scientist from sharing expertise. What it does forbid is that scientist evaluating the scientific status or soundness of his own views on whatever topic may be under consideration.
This is nothing other than a requirement for peer review, as far as I can see.

We don’t usually count it as the best support for a theory or hypothesis if the originator of that same theory or hypothesis judges that his own work is scientifically sound.

That’s self-congratulation, not science.
No, we usually consider better support to come from others versed in the field, carefully evaluating or reviewing the work, attempting to replicate it, putting it to the test, and finding the theory or hypothesis surviving that test.

As to the other main charge:
“The bill is being framed as a play for transparency: Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, argued that the board’s current structure is problematic because it  “excludes industry experts, but not officials for environmental advocacy groups.” The inclusion of industry experts, he said, would right this injustice.

But the White House, which threatened to veto the bill, said it would “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

Consult the text of the bill itself. Is there anything there that supports this charge?

Maybe here (the full context within which section E above appears):

Each member of the Board shall be qualified by education,

training, and experience to evaluate scientific and technical

information on matters referred to the Board under this section. The

Administrator shall ensure that--

            ``(A) the scientific and technical points of view

        represented on and the functions to be performed by the Board

        are fairly balanced among the members of the Board;

            ``(B) at least ten percent of the membership of the Board

        are from State, local, or tribal governments;

            ``(C) persons with substantial and relevant expertise are

        not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or

        representation of entities that may have a potential interest

        in the Board's advisory activities, so long as that interest is

        fully disclosed to the Administrator and the public and

        appointment to the Board complies with section 208 of title 18,

        United States Code;

            ``(D) in the case of a Board advisory activity on a

        particular matter involving a specific party, no Board member

        having an interest in the specific party shall participate in

        that activity;

            ``(E) Board members may not participate in advisory

        activities that directly or indirectly involve review or

        evaluation of their own work;

            ``(F) Board members shall be designated as special

        Government employees; and

            ``(G) no federally registered lobbyist is appointed to the

        Board.

 

A couple things of note:

C could be read as opening the back door for corporate scientist for hire. I suppose this is the source for concern from Salon. But, I would point out that it opens the front, side, and the basement doors to other interested and expert parties as well. Corporations are not necessarily and exclusively the only “entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities” 

State and local governments, universities, colleges, environmental groups, interested scientists, activists of other sorts and foreign entities of similar types, all would fit this bill. Why? There is money involved in science. It is big business. Where money is involved, claims to objectivity are rightly suspect. To counteract such biases C serves the “balance” required in A.

By bringing in known experts with conflicting “affiliations” you get robust debate and a full airing of the best arguments from both sides, along with the narrower requirement for peer review handled earlier. What is more, with the transparency requirement stated in C, you know what, or rather, who you are getting in doing so. You know who is coming to the party, and what possible extra-scientific motivations they may have. What is more D would limit any corporate scientist “shill” from being on the Board that considers any matter for which that shill has been hired to sway the results. G has similar import, in its banning of lobbyists from service.

Not seeing anything so troubling as the Salon Solon paints, so far. In fact, we see a very stringent requirement to make public all possible information that might indicate financial motivations that could compromise the work of the advisory committee:

The Administrator shall--

            ``(A) solicit public nominations for the Board by

        publishing a notification in the Federal Register;

            ``(B) solicit nominations from relevant Federal agencies,

        including the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, the

        Interior, and Health and Human Services;

            ``(C) make public the list of nominees, including the

        identity of the entities that nominated each, and shall accept

        public comment on the nominees;

            ``(D) require that, upon their provisional nomination,

        nominees shall file a written report disclosing financial

        relationships and interests, including Environmental Protection

        Agency grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, or other

        financial assistance, that are relevant to the Board's advisory

        activities for the three-year period prior to the date of their

        nomination, and relevant professional activities and public

        statements for the five-year period prior to the date of their

        nomination; and

            ``(E) make such reports public, with the exception of

        specific dollar amounts, for each member of the Board upon such

        member's selection.

    ``(4) Disclosure of relevant professional activities under

paragraph (3)(D) shall include all representational work, expert

testimony, and contract work as well as identifying the party for which

the work was done.

    ``(5) Except when specifically prohibited by law, the Agency shall

make all conflict of interest waivers granted to members of the Board,

member committees, or investigative panels publicly available.

    ``(6) Any recusal agreement made by a member of the Board, a member

committee, or an investigative panel, or any recusal known to the

Agency that occurs during the course of a meeting or other work of the

Board, member committee, or investigative panel shall promptly be made

public by the Administrator.

In short, although the Salon Solon wants badly to find the bill to be shilling for eevil corporations, by their running dog anti-science lackies in the science-hatin’ Republican party, I ain’t a seein’ it pahdnah.
 
Nice try though..