What to do when the White House sets science aside?


John Holdren says, “as the President’s science and technology advisor, it is my duty to ensure that when science is relevant to policy-making, the very best science—and the best thinking about that science—is at the table for consideration on its merits.” But the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director appears to have been cut out of the action when Obama and his political appointees set science integrity aside in killing the science-based EPA smog rule until after the 2012 election.  Likewise when the administration politically overruled a science-based decision by the Food and Drug Administration on the availability of the Plan B contraceptive. And the jury is still out on whether Dr. Holdren can get Obama to lead the public in talking about climate change.

There remain significant questions about the strength and limits of Obama’s commitment to scientific integrity, especially in cases when the science might be inconvenient for policymaking and political messaging.  I discussed this problem at some length in a recent article in Index on Censorship“Smog Rules” – on Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy.

Where was scientific integrity in the Plan B decision?

The Washington Post reported January 8 (January 7 online):

‘Morning-after pill’ advocates take their case to Obama’s science adviser

By David Brown

Advocates for unfettered access to the “morning-after pill” Plan B One-Step took their case to President Obama’s chief science adviser Friday, asking him to find out the basis for the administration’s controversial decision last month to continue requiring that young teens get the drug only by prescription.

In brief presentations wedged into a meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, five experts decried Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s rejection of the Food and Drug Administration’s move to make Plan B available over the counter.

“We are asking you to work with us . . . to readdress this decision, find out how it was made and why,” Wayne C. Shields told John P. Holdren, the chairman of the council. Shields is president of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, a trade organization with offices in Washington. …

It is not clear what influence, if any, Dr. Holdren had over HHS Secretary Sebelius’s decision. We’ll see if we can find out. My sense is that he was probably not consulted, and that if he had been, he probably would have supported FDA Administrator Hamburg’s decision to approve Plan B for over-the-counter availability, in accord with the clearly expressed advice of the FDA science advisory group. The Post has this:

As Obama’s adviser for science and technology, Holdren has no direct influence over either Sebelius or FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. … Holdren told the speakers: “I will communicate the concerns that were expressed here to my boss.” He also addressed the issue of scientific integrity.

“What scientific integrity requires is that the clearest and most objective evidence be made available” to decision-makers, he said. “That does not necessarily guarantee that the scientific findings alone will determine the outcome.”

Fair enough on that last point, but it seems to be an indirect admission that Sebelius in fact made a political decision (while offering a science-y sounding rationale for it).  The FDA put science on the table, and the Obama administration political apparatus set it aside.  Obama was able to hide behind Sebelius on a decision that appears to be essentially an election-campaign attempt to head off Republican criticism and perhaps limit damage with Catholic voters.  I believe Sebelius would not make such a precedent-setting, FDA-science-overriding decision without a go-ahead from the White House.

For concise and solidly-argued views on the problems with the Plan B decision, and the potential slippery-slope danger in Obama setting a precedent for allowing politics to overrule an FDA science-based decision, see:

“With the Plan B decision, the Obama administration broke its promise” (Washington Post op-ed, December 2011, 2010,
by Susan F. Wood)

“Free the F.D.A.” (New York Times op-ed, December 13, 2011, by Daniel Carpenter)

“Politics and the Morning-After Pill” (New York Times editorial, December 7, 2011)

Where was scientific integrity in the decision to kill the smog rule?

On September 2, 2011, President Obama rejected a proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulation under the Clean Air Act that would have set a scientifically-based health standard requiring substantial reductions in emissions of smog-causing pollutants. The new rule, following the recommendations of EPA science advisers, would have strengthened a weaker standard set at the end of the Bush administration. Ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, can cause lung damage, breathing difficulties, and heart problems. The EPA’s own analysis had found that the health benefits of the proposed new standard would outweigh industry’s regulatory compliance costs. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson had made pushing through a tough new clean air standard for ozone one of the key initiatives of her tenure. That initiative is now on hold until after the 2012 presidential election.

Notwithstanding the Clean Air Act requirement that the EPA set a health and science-based standard, with economic costs to be considered only at the stage of state-level implementation plans, the White House decision to direct the EPA to pull down its smog rule did not pretend to be based on science. In fact, it flew in the face of the scientific evidence on the health effects of ozone pollution. Rather, Obama sided with Republican and industry complaints that the smog rule would impose a costly regulatory burden and hinder job creation under conditions of high unemployment and a shaky economic recovery. Thus, he capitulated to the ‘environment versus jobs’ framing, lending legitimacy to the view that pits the economy against public health and environmental protection. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, the chief lobbying arm of the US oil industry, praised the decision.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House Office of Management and Budget regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and Obama’s White House Chief of Staff William Daley had teamed up to kill the smog rule. A record of meetings on the OMB website reveals that, on August 16, 2011, Sunstein, Daley and other White House officials met with representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Forest and Paper Association and the Business Roundtable to discuss reconsideration of the ozone air quality standard – just 17 days before Obama rejected the new rule. While the Clean Air Act assigns statutory authority to promulgate air quality standards to the EPA – not to the OMB or White House political staff – the EPA was clearly outgunned in this company.

For the public record of who was at the meeting when corporate power leaned on the Obama administration to kill the smog rule, see, on the Office of Management and Budget website:  Meeting Record Regarding: Reconsideration of the 2008 Ozone Primary and Secondary National Ambient Air Quality Standards Rule.  I note that Dr. Holdren is not listed among the participants in this meeting, although the rulemaking under consideration was clearly science-based, and although five other White House offices were represented at the meeting.

How can Dr. Holdren, as he says,  “ensure that when science is relevant to policy-making, the very best science—and the best thinking about that science—is at the table for consideration on its merits,” if he is not at the table when the likes of Bill Daley and Cass Sunstein are teaming up with the top corporate polluters to trash a science-based rulemaking?

And, on climate change, when will we see the “major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way”?

In concluding some questioning of Dr. Holdren at the White House Climate Change Adaptation Summit  in May 2010 I asked:  “When will the President really give a speech to the American people that’s about the climate change problem as such?”

In replying, Dr. Holdren said:

“[I]f we do not accept that climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face, we will not put into the legislation that we need, the key ingredient that we need. The President is well aware of that.

“I certainly expect that there will be, at some point, going forward, I can’t tell you for certain when that will be, there will be a major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way. The fact is, it’s true – it’s not enough that I’m out there saying it, that Steve Chu is out there saying it, that Jane Lubchenco’s out there saying it. It’s far, far more powerful when the President is out there saying it, and he will do that.

“Again, I talk to him regularly about this, he talks about it to the cabinet. The President understands with crystal clarity what a big deal this is …

Still waiting, three years into the Administration.

I do hope, once he is back at Harvard and the Obama administration is history, that Dr. Holdren will write a candid memoir about his experiences in the White House when science collided with the realities of politics. That would be a public service.

This entry was posted in Obama Administration, Science-Policy Interaction. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What to do when the White House sets science aside?

  1. Tony O'Brien says:

    When Stephen Chu and John Holdren were appointed I cheered, little did I realise it was just a better way of muzzling them. What use is having the best advice available if it is ignored. They may have had their little victories, but overall their contribution may have been more effective outside the administration.

    If Obama is reelected and reappoints Holdren and Chu and then if the situation continues into the next term, their resignations may be more effective than their service.

    On the other hand second term presidents not encumbered by any thought of reelection have their eye on history, just maybe the situation will improve.

    The memoirs could indeed be interesting. I had put “will be interesting” but have seen where other memoirs missed out the interesting bits, the authors more interested in future positions than setting the record straight.

Comments are closed.