Tuesday, December 21, 2004



White House finishes controversial 'peer review' guidelines

Marty Coyne, Greenwire senior reporter
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Science used by the U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and other federal agencies to support major rules are subject to review by non-governmental experts for the first time under new White House standards.

While research by EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies has frequently been subject to outside review in the past, "peer review" guidelines issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget on Friday are aimed at formalizing this process.

Supporters of the guidelines -- in the Bush administration and industry -- say they will help ensure that federal policy is shaped by sound scientific practices. But critics claim the guidelines are an effort by the executive branch to seize control of the release of scientific information and slow the creation of new federal rules.

The guidelines separate scientific information meriting peer review into two types.

The first requires federal agencies to appoint an independent peer review panel for science supporting rules or policies costing industry, states or local governments more than $500 million in any year. While this is a higher cost threshold than industry officials wanted, Sean Moulton, a information policy analyst at OMB Watch, said OMB can effectively order an agency review by designating this type of science "highly influential."

The second type of science affected by the guidelines is "influential scientific information," such as risk assessments, environmental and natural resources computer modeling, data and other technical analyses. Agencies can subject these types of scientific information to the same rigorous peer review as highly influential science or they can get them peer reviewed by a small group of experts in one environmental or natural resources discipline.

Agencies can subject influential scientific information to the lower level of peer review, but the guidelines direct agencies to "choose a peer review mechanism that is adequate" based on a variety of factors including whether science is new, the extent of prior peer reviews, and the expected costs and benefits that will result from its use. "More rigorous peer review is necessary for information that is based on novel methods or presents complex challenges for interpretation," the rule states.

The White House substantially revised the guidelines since they were first proposed in September 2003. Among the changes is a proposal that would grant federal agencies the right to release scientific documents about an "emerging public health or medical risk" without first getting OMB approval. Another change OMB made was to make clear that science already reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences is not subject to the peer review guidelines.

Jim Tozzi, the executive director for the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, expects agencies to rarely subject science to the highly influential standard under the guidelines. "The number of transactions covered by this will be pretty small," Tozzi said.

But Tozzi added that guidelines are a victory for industry because they create a comprehensive approach for all agencies to follow.

OMB Watch's Moulton said the final guidelines are an improvement compared with OMB's original proposal, but he said the White House failed to recognize that estimating the costs and benefit implications of research is nearly impossible because scientific information about a potential environmental or health threat is developed years ahead of rules and policies to address a particular problem.

Moulton also said the White House now plans to convene an interagency panel to discuss how to use the guidelines. The administration should have held interagency discussions before the guidelines were developed, he said.

Concerns that major rules may be slowed down by the guidelines may be warranted as the Department of Energy issued a statement Friday that long-awaited standards to improve the efficiency of heaters and air conditioners could be delayed by much as two years because of the guidelines and other factors (Greenwire, Dec. 17).