EPA Peer Review Under Microscope

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Science  17 Jan 1997:
Vol. 275, Issue 5298, pp. 295
DOI: 10.1126/science.275.5298.295a

In its latest effort to bolster the science behind its rules, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is putting one manager in charge of all agency peer review—chemist Robert Hugget, who heads EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD).

Two years ago, EPA adopted a plan to increase its use of peer review, but a General Accounting Office (GAO) report last fall found that the plan was not being applied consistently. For example, agency staffers sent a key chapter of a report on dioxin risks to EPA's outside science advisory board before it was peer-reviewed. And a computer model of vehicle emissions used since 1978 had never been reviewed by outside experts. GAO urged EPA to impose “more comprehensive accountability” on its work.

The new policy is meant to do that. EPA's air, water, and other offices will still organize reviews of their reports. However, Hugget will oversee an inventory of everything to be reviewed, clarify the peer-review process by training staff, and run spot checks to ensure that the policy is being followed. “We want to make sure that [peer review] is second nature,” Hugget says. EPA Deputy Administrator Fred Hansen signed the new policy earlier this week.

“It could be a very beneficial change,” says Ray Loehr, an environmental engineer at the University of Texas and a scientific adviser to ORD.

In the meantime, Congress may hatch its own peer-review plan for EPA. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), co-chair of the GOP Environmental Task Force, expects to draft a bill requiring that new environmental rules undergo a review similar to the vetting of articles by scientific journals. Pombo is drawing on advice from EPA microbiologist David Lewis, an outspoken critic of agency science. The Fish and Wildlife Service might be covered as well, says a Pombo staffer, adding, “A lot of agencies are rife with inadequate peer review.”

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