Issue Date: October 1, 2012
Science In Policy
Organizations that often find themselves on opposite sides of a variety of research debates have united to recommend changes in how the U.S. government uses science to make decisions.
A panel of business, nonprofit, and government leaders brought together by the Keystone Center, a nonprofit that works to make consensus-driven recommendations, has suggested new ways for federal agencies to handle conflict of interest and bias when selecting members of scientific advisory committees and to weigh evidence in systematic reviews of scientific research.
Although there have been previous recommendations on how to improve government decisions, most give high-level advice rather than specific guidelines. The Keystone Center homed in on two areas where it believes specific help is needed.
To come up with a plan that would be widely accepted, the center created a Research Integrity Roundtable. It brought together leaders from companies including Bayer, Dow, and DuPont; members of nonprofits including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists; and liaisons from several government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. The roundtable got under way in October 2010 and issued its report, “Improving the Use of Science in Regulatory Decision-Making,” on Sept. 18.
“The roundtable provided the opportunity to influence the rules of the road for our government’s use of scientific information and advice,” says Raymond J. Garant, director of public policy for the American Chemical Society and a member of the roundtable.
Controversies have stirred for years about the use and misuse of science in the regulatory process, especially over the makeup of panels examining controversial issues.
“Each year, there are about 1,000 advisory committees of various types that provide counsel or advice to government on sometimes very high profile and far reaching issues,” says Peter S. Adler, past-president of the center. “These scientific advisory panels are … quite important in the way we form laws and regulations.”
To improve the credibility of scientific advisory panels, the report lays out specific guidelines on how panelists should be selected and vetted. For example, it states exactly what financial information panelists must disclose. It also suggests panel conveners recognize that everyone has a bias, so panelists should be balanced among competing viewpoints in the community.
“One of the most important things we’ve recommended is being very clear on the definitions of what conflict of interest is and what bias is and being sure that agencies have in place appropriate methods to evaluate them in selecting panelists,” says panel member Richard Becker, senior director at the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group.
The panel also issued a set of best practices for systematic reviews of research. The report recommends that agencies begin by setting out transparent criteria for how different studies will be weighed. It also broadly addresses how to assess proprietary business information when conducting reviews.
What should be included in these reviews and what priority different research should be given has been controversial. Becker says the new guidelines should help ensure consistency and transparency. They will “provide the public and all stakeholders with a defensible recognition that the best available science has been adequately reviewed and evaluated,” he says.
At a press conference, committee members urged federal agencies to voluntarily adopt the proposals, which will help bring consistency both inside agencies and among different agencies.
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