February 2010

Rules and Views

Science policy issues increasingly dominate the national agenda. Whether describing a clean-energy economy or a war on cancer, politicians and policymakers are often talking about science. With so many important decisions to be made, the federal government must rely upon the expertise of scientists to make policy recommendations. While many agencies employ scientific experts, executive agencies need the expertise and opinions of citizen scientists, and, by law, the agencies have to listen.

Highlights from the Policy Blotter

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Policy Blotter blog posts regular news and commentary about current science policy issues. Below are some recent highlights. You can read them and other posts at http://asbmbpolicy.asbmb.org.

• Congress passes 2010 science budgets
The U.S. House and Senate have passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010, the large omnibus spending bill that includes budgets for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical and Prosthetics Research program.

• Erector Sets and Barbie Dolls Since Larry Summer’s now-infamous remarks in 2005, the underrepresentation of women in science has gained a high level of attention. Recently, the American Enterprise Institute decided to weigh in.

• McCain and Coburn Single out Science as “Waste” 
In a report released Dec. 9, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., identified more than a dozen research grants funded by the stimulus package that they claim are indicative of wasteful government spending.

• Italian Science Agency Funds Creationist Book
Italy’s foremost science agency has funded the publication of a creationist book authored by its own vice president.

The Rules

Executive agencies, like the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, are empowered by Congress to regulate the practices of individuals, industries and agency officials. But legislators rarely have the time or expertise to legislate on highly specific and technical issues. Congress, therefore, empowers executive agencies to make specific, legally binding policy decisions, known as rules.

Rules related to science policy can pertain to a wide range of issues. Some rules apply to the guidelines and practice of research. More frequently, rules pertain to societal issues upon which scientific data and expertise must weigh in.

Comments, Please

Before a rule can be enacted, the agency must solicit comments from the public. Since 1946, the Administrative Procedures Act has dictated that a “general notice of proposed rule-making shall be published in the Federal Register,” the U.S. government’s official daily publication (1). Once a rule is proposed, individuals and groups are given at least 30 days to submit comments to the agency.

Regulations.gov provides an easy way for scientists and the general public to comment on proposed regulations.

Why Us?

Scientists have an interest in the rule-making process because it affects their research. But perhaps more importantly, comments from scientists are particularly important because of their specialized expertise. A quick search on Regulations.gov at the time this article was written revealed that 147 proposed rules were open for public comment, and 46 of those had been posted by scientifically focused agencies such as the NIH, the EPA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association and the Department of Energy. While thousands may comment, evidence-based comments from scientists are particularly useful in crafting the best federal regulations.

Scientists also can share their expertise to provide agencies with information that will inform the drafting of proposed rules. While not necessarily required by law, agencies often issue notices of proposed rule-making, allowing the public to submit comments and information that will aid in the formulation of a proposed rule. By submitting information directly to agencies, scientists can help ensure that policymakers have the best information available when drafting new rules.

Comments Matter

Many scientists may worry about the time commitment involved in responding an agency’s comment request and whether that comment is likely to have an impact. While practices vary from agency to agency, comments are read and often get public responses. For example, the EPA recently published 11 volumes containing more than 500 pages of responses to the more than 1,000 comments it received on regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. If they do not appropriately consider and respond to the comments they receive, federal agencies make themselves vulnerable to lawsuits.

A Seat at the Table

President Obama has brought science and scientists back into the policymaking fold. Steven Chu’s appointment as U.S. secretary of energy and the new importance of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology are just two prominent examples. But effective, thoughtful science policy will be created with the advice of the entire scientific community, one public comment at a time.


1. Rulemaking provisions of Administrative Procedures Act: http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/laws/administrative-procedure/553.html

Kyle M. Brown (kmbrown@asbmb.org) is an ASBMB science policy fellow.

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