New York Times
March 21, 2002


By Andrew C. Revkin

It does not even take effect until next Oct. 1. But a
little-noticed law called the Data Quality Act, signed in the
waning days of the Clinton administration, has set off a fierce
debate over how best to weigh health and environmental risks.

The law -- supported, and largely written, by industry-backed
groups -- requires the government for the first time to set
standards for the quality of scientific information and
statistics used and disseminated by federal agencies. It would
create a system in every government agency under which anyone
could point out errors in documents and regulations.

If the complaints were borne out, the agency would have to
expunge the data from government Web sites and publications. More
broadly, opponents of the new law say that while nobody wants the
government to issue flawed data, the new process could undermine
valid regulations and stifle government efforts to convey
information on issues like climate change and cancer risks.

The National Academy of Sciences is convening a meeting today at
which officials from government regulatory agencies, lawyers and
experts from industry, science and environmental groups will
discuss the law's potential for harm and good.

Even before the law takes effect, one of the groups that helped
write it has already cited it in a petition requesting the
withdrawal of a report on global warming.

The group, the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, said in a
Feb. 11 letter to the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy that a government assessment of the regional
impacts of climate change is alarmist and based on flawed
computer models.

If the center prevails, the study -- the product of 10 years of
work and critiques by independent scientists -- could be removed
from government Web sites and files. Many climate scientists,
even some whose criticisms of early drafts were quoted in the
center's petition, say the challenge is unfounded.

The Data Quality Act was quietly enacted in December 2000 as 27
lines in a giant budget bill.

It charged the government to create procedures "ensuring and
maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity" of
scientific information and statistics disseminated by federal
agencies. Now, dozens of government agencies are struggling to
translate that language into thousands of pages of
quality-control guidelines.

Agencies must finish drafts of their science quality procedures
by May 1 and send the final version to the White House Office of
Management and Budget by July, where the Bush administration will
check to be sure guidelines meet its standards.

The effort is being overseen by Dr. John D. Graham, an expert on
risk and regulation from Harvard who last year became the
administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs
of the Office of Management and Budget. Dr. Graham's focus on
using strict statistical analysis of risks and benefits to judge
where to focus public resources has made him a favorite of
industry and a target of private environmental groups, which
often rely on public passion to drive campaigns.

He said that the administration's goal was to ensure that all
government agencies -- in every duty -- consider not just the
quality of the data they use and communicate, but also the
quality of their own analysis. The result, he said, is that "in
the long run this will focus government on problems that science
suggests are very serious and away from problems that are less

The prospect has industry officials elated. Many of those who
helped draft the measure defend it as a vital breakthrough in
their years-long effort to pinpoint weaknesses in the science
behind costly regulations.

"This is the biggest sleeper there is in the regulatory area and
will have an impact so far beyond anything people can imagine,"
said William L. Kovacs, the vice president for environment,
technology and regulatory affairs of the United States Chamber of

"This is the first time where, if the data is not good, you can
actually begin challenging the agency," Mr. Kovacs said. The
law, by setting a government standard for scientific quality,
could also help industry prevail in lawsuits claiming rules
relied on poor data or analysis, he and other industry
representatives say.

A prime target, he and other industry representatives said, is
new Environmental Protection Agency rules restricting the finest
pollution particles, which are mainly emitted by diesel engines
and power plants and have been linked increasingly to lung and
heart ailments.

Many industry officials say the rule is too broad and the E.P.A.
should first find which types of small particles are hazardous.
Supporters of the regulations, which have not yet taken effect,
say it would take years of additional study to pinpoint the exact
hazard, but people are dying from such pollution now.

Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who is
chairman of the Senate environment committee, said the goal of
the law is laudable, but it could easily work against effective

"Opponents of government action to protect the public's health
and the environment," Mr. Jeffords said, "have latched on to
the Data Quality Act and are attempting to misuse it to prevent
the public from getting valid information about threats to their
well being and quality of life."

Following guidelines written by the Bush administration,
government agencies are creating procedures for judging the
quality of the data they use -- whether generated within the
government or by university scientists, hospital researchers,
companies or private groups.

The more influential the data are likely to be, the higher the
quality standard they must meet, the guidelines say. In some
cases, the guidelines state, even studies published in respected
peer-reviewed journals will require further confirmation.

Under the data law, by October every agency must have the
equivalent of a complaints line, through which individuals,
companies or groups can challenge scientific findings.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday initiated a
four-day online comment process on its Web site,,
seeking ideas for how it might best create such a system.

Some scientific groups are concerned that insufficient attention
has been paid to the new regulation and its likely effects.

"This is a critical juncture," said Joanne Padrón-Carney,
director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the
world's largest scientific organization. "Each agency will be
clarifying its own methods for how they define things like
quality. It's important for scientists to pay close attention."

Ms. Carney said there was potential for problems if industries or
institutions opposed to certain regulations demanded complicated,
time-consuming, intrusive reviews of data.

"We really would not like to have science attacked as a way of
being sure that policy isn't made," she said. Views remain mixed
on whether the benefits of the law will outweigh the potential

Alan B. Morrison, a lawyer on leave from Public Citizen, the
private consumer watchdog group in Washington, said the law could
provide unexpected opportunities for critics of any government
agency -- from the Defense Department to the Nuclear Regulatory

It applies just as much to data released by the Pentagon as it
does to E.P.A. pollution studies, Mr. Morrison noted.

But over all, he said, he is convinced that "its clear purpose
is to slow agencies down."

Many experts on regulations say that if the guidelines are
written appropriately, they could spur agencies to carefully,
openly review the quality of science used to write rules or set
policies in advance. Currently, in most cases, a pollution or
health standard is published and only then the fighting begins
over whether it is valid or not, said Frederick R. Anderson, a
corporate lawyer in Washington who is part of the National
Academy of Sciences panel conducting the meeting today. Often,
such fights spill over into the courts, resulting in years of
costly litigation.

Dr. Graham said he expected that the guidelines, instead of
burdening agencies with new costs and work, would reduce the
burden by cutting the number of such lawsuits.

But some architects of the legislation say they expect it will
help them in the courtroom. Most notable is James J. Tozzi, the
founder of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness.

With a government-set yardstick for quality, Mr. Tozzi said,
critics of regulations can now build more convincing cases
showing that an agency was arbitrary and capricious in its choice
of data. Until now, such suits have generally failed.

The most important aspect of the law, he said, is that it creates
a consistent system for uncovering errors early and encouraging
agencies to be more careful about how they use data.

"It's the information age," Mr. Tozzi said. "Now in the
world's most powerful government you're going to have to issue
information that's accurate."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company