Nature, July 20, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The White House is working overtime to roll- back, ignore, and grid-lock environmental regulation in the U.S. Risk assessment is the center piece of the plan.]

A bulletin issued earlier this year by the White House Office of Management and Budget contains a number of recommendations on how the different parts of the US federal government should go about assessing risk. (See related story.) The document, when it is finalized, will have an important bearing on how regulatory decisions such as environmental rules are made.

The topic of risk assessment sounds arcane but is of vital importance, especially to the United States' poorest communities. The poor have no say in setting the rules but bear the brunt of most environmental threats, including dirty water, polluted air and chemicals left behind on industrial sites.They will suffer the consequences if the balance of risk assessment is shifted in favour of the polluter. And if the current draft is implemented, that's exactly what will happen.

The United States has pioneered the use of quantitative risk assessments, which are now widely used around the world. The National Academies has played a central role in setting the agenda for how such assessments should be conducted and their outcomes incorporated into the related sphere of 'risk management', whereby regulators and other agencies take action in response to an identified risk.

The proposed bulletin would increase the range of circumstances in which formal risk assessment would be required before government agencies could take action or set regulations. It would also put in place firm guidelines on how these assessments are conducted.

This effort echoes the legislation on risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis that the Republican-led Congress attempted to pass in the late 1990s. That legislation failed, opposed by moderate Republicans such as Sherwood Boehlert, now chair of the House science committee, who rightly saw it as an attempt to stifle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators.

That legislation was, at least, a relatively transparent attempt to roll back regulation, which at the time was an important element in the Republicans' political agenda. The call for government to get off the backs of companies and individuals had considerable resonance then, and indeed it still has. But it is an argument that has lost some of its political appeal, and it is certainly not being made in public to support the White House's proposed risk-assessment bulletin.

Some risk assessments done by government agencies do fall short of reasonable standards. Only last week, a National Academies panel criticized an assessment by the EPA into the chemical dioxin. But these shortfalls could be addressed without tying up the whole government in a set of rules to be administered from the centre by a small, heavily politicized office with few technical staff -- the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

It is not the first time the OMB has sought to reform the regulatory environment through this office, whose recently departed director, John Graham, was a former head of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. When it proposed a strict definition of how the science behind regulatory decisions should be peer-reviewed, the National Academies cried foul, and the definition was relaxed.

This time, the OMB has asked the National Academies to review the proposed bulletin, confident that such a review will endorse its technical content. But the bulletin's technical content is not being disputed: what is at issue is its scope, suitability for purpose, cost and the effort that might be wasted in enforcing compliance.

The motivation of Graham, his mooted successor Susan Dudley of George Mason University in Virginia, and indeed of President Bush himself, is not really in doubt. What they want is not better regulation, but less regulation. They should admit as much, instead of hiding their agenda behind the mantra of 'sound science'.

Copyright 2006 Nature Publishing Group