The Science and Politics of Risk Assessments

How much of a role do non-scientific factors play in shaping our environmental and public health policies?  Are we doing a good job in objectively evaluating the data that influence these policies?

In a recent survey, George Mason University set out to see what the scientific community believes drives environmental policy.  The report, “Expert Opinion on Regulatory Risk Assessment” surveyed three professional organizations:  The Risk Assessment Specialty Section of the Society of Toxicology, The Dose Response Section of the Society for Risk Analysis, and the International Society for Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.

The results were not encouraging (if you believe science should drive the decision making process).  The report states in part, “…too little attention is being given to scientific factors and economic costs and benefits, and too much attention is given to environmental groups, the precautionary principle, media coverage, and political concerns.”

The criticism from the professional organizations includes the lack of scientific rigor currently being used.  For example, a major part of risk assessment involves acquiring and evaluation of data.  Yet, only 31% of the respondents report that “in their experience, such underlying raw data are ‘often’ or ‘always’ made available to assessors…”

Similarly, only 24% of the respondents report that “…consistent and transparent criteria are often or always used to evaluate the quality and reliability of studies.”

When asked how much weight risk managers give to a certain factor verses how much weight should be given, it’s quite a contrast.  Ideally, risk managers believe they should focus on science, economic costs/benefits, and legal implications.  In reality, it’s legal implications, political concerns, the precautionary principle, and environmental groups that get the greatest “weight of concern.”

Interestingly, political affiliation of the scientist had little or no bearing on what they believed was important – 99% of liberals and 100% of conservatives believe that scientific factors should have the greatest weight.

Policies relating to protection of our health, the health of our environment, and our economy can have significant and far-reaching impacts.  Relegating decisions regarding these important issues to the most vocal, or what seems to be the most politically advantageous at the moment, is reckless and short sighted…and…in all likelihood, will not change any time soon.

To see a copy of the report from George Mason University, click here.

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