April 20, 2004
OMB’s Second Draft of Peer Review Bulletin Creates New Problems
Potential for Political and Industry Interference with Health, Safety and Environmental Regulation Remains
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the face of overwhelming opposition from the scientific, academic and public health communities, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has dropped its attempts to impose overt political control over the release of health and safety information by federal agencies and force pro-industry domination of scientific review panels. However, in a revised draft of its peer review proposal, OMB has opened new potential avenues for political and industry influence that could threaten public protections.
At a time when the Bush administration has been accused of widespread suppression and manipulation of scientific information, OMB is proposing to establish review procedures that all government agencies must follow before using or disseminating scientific or technical information. The reach of the proposal is extremely broad, covering everything from complex research findings relied upon in the development of new regulations to factual data displayed on Web sites.
The most welcome change from the previous version of the draft bulletin is the elimination of a requirement that agencies secure the permission of the administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) before releasing emergency health and safety information to the public.
OMB also has moderated the express pro-industry slant of the criteria for selecting members of peer review panels. Under the new version, not all scientists who receive research funds from federal agencies would automatically be classified as “biased,” as they would have been in the original draft bulletin. However, the bulletin maintains its antipathy toward academic scientists while exhibiting no comparable skepticism toward scientists employed by industry, who still are not disqualified for conflicts based on the interest of their employer in the outcome of the proceeding on whose panel they serve.
Although these revisions are positive, OMB has made a number of other changes that create new problems:
- In addition to the national security and foreign affairs exemptions in the original draft, OIRA now proposes to exempt accounting, budget, financial and trade-related information from the peer review process. It is unclear why such important information should be exempt, except that businesses do not want it covered.
- An agency would be permitted to bypass the bulletin’s otherwise mandatory requirements for selecting panelists, producing reports and involving the public in the review process, if the agency uses an alternative form of review specifically approved by the administrator of OIRA. OIRA has again made itself the final arbiter, with no stated criteria to guide its decision. This provision appears to create a channel for regulated industries to go to OIRA for an alternative when they want to avoid an agency’s plan for reviewing particular information.
- The definition of “information” has been broadened to include not only “any research report, data, finding or other analysis,” as in the original, but also “any communication or representation of knowledge such as facts or data” that might have a substantial impact on public policies or private sector decisions. Requiring peer review of “facts” greatly increases the burden on agency time and resources and furthers the perception promoted by industry that every fact is open to interpretation.
“OIRA revealed its intentions in the original draft of the bulletin when it tried to take control over the release of information and stack review panels with pro-industry members,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Now it has given itself ultimate discretion to approve alternative review processes. The exemptions for budgetary analyses – such as assessment of the cost of prescription drug coverage – and for trade-related information that industry wants on a fast track, confirm that the real purpose behind this costly government-wide process is to stymie the development of needed new health, safety and environmental protections and give leeway to industry.”