Political science

THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency has been rightly criticized under the Bush administration for repeatedly allowing political appointees to run roughshod over scientists, ignoring their findings and crafting regulations that please industry but fail to protect the public. Now the agency is making the practice official.

Under a new policy announced last week, scientists will be shuffled to the margins when the agency resets its all-important air-quality standards. Up to now, the process of drawing up new standards began with two sets of scientists -- EPA staffers and an independent panel -- conducting reviews of how pollution affects public health, then making recommendations to agency managers. Now the managers, who are usually political appointees, will work with staff scientists from the start, and the first review paper will be about policy, not science.

Only after the policy assessment is published in the Federal Register, when it is less likely to be changed significantly, will independent experts have any say at all.

The ostensible reason for the change is to streamline the regulatory process -- a reasonable goal. Both industry and environmentalists have criticized the EPA for failing to meet legal deadlines for updating air standards. But there are better ways to make the EPA run more efficiently than by converting a scientific process into a political one.

In a way, the new policy is more honest -- politicians were already brushing aside research that didn't fit their ideology. Last year, for example, the EPA's inspector general reported that the agency ignored scientific findings to come up with softer regulations on mercury, which is produced largely by coal-burning plants. Three years before, it held up the release of a report on mercury levels in women, for no good reason, until it was leaked nine months later. Now it won't have to pretend to pay much attention to scientists at all.

Normally, the administration has broad leeway to interpret law into regulations. But when it changes the process to subvert the law's protective intent, Congress should reluctantly step in to spell out the obvious: Environmental policy is, first and foremost, about science.

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