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Public Citizen Criticizes White House Plan to Impose Peer Review on Agency Information, Increase Secrecy, Stymie Important Publi

Dec. 22, 2003

Public Citizen Criticizes White House Plan to Impose Peer Review on Agency Information, Increase Secrecy, Stymie Important Public Protections

OMB Proposal Would Increase Pro-Industry Bias in Government Decision-Making and Delay or Derail Needed Health, Safety and Environmental Protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A proposal issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would effectively give regulated industries such as utilities and chemical manufacturers the ability to block federal agencies from implementing important safeguards or making critical information about hazards available to the public, Public Citizen said in comments filed with the agency last week. The proposal would bar federal agencies from using scientific data, or releasing it to the public, unless the information has first gone through a cumbersome and industry-favored “peer review” process.

Other groups that have filed comments opposing the proposed bulletin include the Federation of American Scientists, the American Public Health Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, OMB Watch, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Progressive Regulation and members of Congress.

“Requiring outside peer review of all scientific data prepared by or used by government agencies is an impossibility, and is wasteful and unauthorized,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “This proposal is a red herring designed to stymie government decisions, keep information secret from the public, and introduce potentially massive costs and delays into the regulatory process.”

Public Citizen has a long history of involvement in regulatory activities at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, among other agencies. In its detailed critique of the proposal, Public Citizen highlighted some of the many flaws in the proposal, including:

  • OMB has not produced a single example of flawed government science that would have benefited from peer review, but proposes sweeping new requirements.
  • The blatant pro-industry bias of OMB’s peer review panel selection criteria is staggering. All academic scientists whose universities receive federal funding are labeled as having “conflicts of interest,” but scientists employed by regulated industries are not, unless they actually work on the specific issue under review. The result will be panels stacked with pro-industry scientists sitting in judgment on government science.
  • The mandatory review and comment periods imposed by the bulletin will bog agencies down to the point of ossification and lay the groundwork for challenges by regulated industries at the end of the process.
  • “Permit applications” are exempt from the scope of the bulletin. In other words, when industry wants a government agency like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or FDA to grant permission for a business activity, science doesn’t have to be peer reviewed under the proposal. But when the government is considering imposing limits on industry for the protection of the public, it does.
  • Control over release of information to the public in the event of a public health emergency is transferred away from health, safety and environmental officials and into the hands of OMB. This makes explicit a power that OMB has already exercised behind the scenes. According to a December 29, 2002 article by Andrew Schneider in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “White House Office Blocked EPA’s Asbestos Plan,” OMB prevented the EPA from declaring a public health emergency and issuing a national warning about Zonolite insulation, which contains highly carcinogenic asbestos fibers. (Click here to view the newspaper article and Public Citizen’s letter to OMB.)

In joint comments, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, with 105,000 and 60,000 members respectively, described the proposal as effectively creating a “receivership regime” and deplored its “likely interference with timely, responsible public health announcements to the detriment of the public weal.” Click here to view those comments.