University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Straightening science policy

Wendy Wagner

Wendy Wagner

In late 2008, Wendy Wagner, a law professor at The University of Texas at Austin, got a call. Would she serve on a panel that would develop guidelines for the proper role of science in setting regulatory policies?

Wagner has written books with titles like “Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research” (co-authored with Texas law colleague Thomas McGarity) and “Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research.”

Could there be any other answer than yes?

Wagner joined 13 other experts on the Science Policy Panel of the Bipartisan Policy Committee.

The panel’s co-chairs were Sherwood Boehlert, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Donald Kennedy, a professor at Stanford University and former editor of Science.

Boehlert was considered among the most scientifically knowledgeable congressmen and women during his 12 terms in the House. Kennedy headed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the Carter administration and was president of Stanford University.

Other panelists were from academia, industry, and health and science organizations.

Science in the hand of government policy makers has never been a pristine business, but the administration of George W. Bush drew strong criticism from the scientific community for misusing science or ignoring it.

“There were a lot of pretty dramatic problems over the past five years with the use of science and policy and a lot of scandals,” Wagner said. “I think everyone on the panel felt that we could make some progress on some of those issues, and that just having a group that had diverse viewpoints agree on what was wrong and what was right would be really helpful.”

The panel issued its report on Aug. 5.

The panel’s recommendations included ways to improve the science advisory panels that work with regulators and to strengthen peer review of scientific papers.

For Wagner, who’s splitting her time between Austin and Case Western Reserve University, the panel was a way for her to apply the work she’s done for the past 15 years.

“It’s always nice to leave your little writing office and interact with people on issues that you’ve been thinking about mostly alone,” she said. “It was a good reality check and a good growth experience for the issues I’m interested in.”

The group met together three times in daylong sessions. There was a lot of e-mailing between meetings.

The panel was directed to work quickly. Wagner said that helped.

“The short time span helped keep it on track,” she said. “I think everybody realized that we each had to make concessions and give up things. But the report isn’t this sort of watered down namby-pamby report.”

Wagner said she understands that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is very interested in the panel’s recommendations.

“I think this report is actually intended to provide the OSTP with a template and I think they’re pretty receptive to it,” she said.

So if the panel’s recommendations are followed, science and government will coexist in peace and harmony?

Not quite, Wagner said.

Government has never been totally at peace with science nor will it ever be, she said. But things did get out of control in recent years.

“It’s almost like a five-year-old that has been brought up on chocolate and no discipline,” Wagner said. “I think we’ve turned it back into a normal, average kindergartener.”

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