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A White House Mandate for More Peer Review

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Science  05 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5638, pp. 1307
DOI: 10.1126/science.301.5638.1307b

Is the government intent on improving its technical decisions or merely slowing down the regulatory process? That's a question critics raise about a new proposal from the Bush Administration to require agencies to peer review all scientific evidence that shapes a major regulatory decision. The guidelines, due out this week in the Federal Register, detail exhaustive procedures that agencies must follow, from tallying which documents will be reviewed to screening out anyone with a potential conflict of interest.

The new guidelines should raise the quality of federal rulemaking and lower the chances that the rules will be overturned in court, says John Graham, chief of the White House Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. That's “good for consumers and businesses.” Some scientific experts take Graham at his word, noting that the proposal enshrines a basic scientific process. It's “an excellent idea,” says Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine. “Peer review is not going to eliminate controversy, but [it can] defuse one kind of criticism.”

But others worry that the changes will make it much harder for government agencies to issue new regulations. “Is it just another attempt to slow regulation?” wonders Ellen Paul of the nonprofit Ornithological Council. The notice discusses at length the potential corrupting influence of agency funding on academic scientists but is almost silent on industry-funded researchers, complains law professor Rena Steinzor of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore: “This tilts the playing field.”

The draft guidelines supplement the Data Quality Act, a 2001 law championed by industry that sets out new standards for information released by government agencies. The rules apply to documents issued after 1 January 2004.

In suggesting that agencies do a better job of applying peer review, the draft bulletin proposes a sliding scale. For some documents, publication in a peer-reviewed journal might be sufficient. For “especially significant information,” however, an agency might need to assemble outside experts.

Agencies should also pay more attention to possible conflicts of interest. “Substantial funding” from an agency could disqualify a scientist, according to the guidelines, as well as publicly advocating a position on the matter at hand. A “biased” reviewer should be balanced by someone “with a contrary bias.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already following most of these steps, says science adviser Paul Gilman. “This is pretty standard stuff,” agrees Vanessa Vu, staff director for EPA's Science Advisory Board, which reviews the agency's major scientific documents. But Graham says the rules could require major changes at agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers. The comment period ends 28 October.

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