Involving the Public in Scientific Decisions

By Olga Naidenko

Maybe our government should listen to what the people have to say? I mean, not all the time, not every day – surely, that would be too much to ask for – but at least every once in a while? Occasionally? And even consider those public opinions with a modicum of respect? Ah, what a dream that would be!

On Tuesday September 16 Erica Engelhaupt reported in Environmental Science and Technology  on the findings of the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making. The opening phrase of the NRC report is incisive: “Advocates of public participation believe it improves environmental assessment and decision making; detractors criticize it as ineffective and inefficient.” So, in the NRC opinion, does public participation result in better or worse decisions for environmental and public health?

The conclusion is unambiguous: public participation improves the quality and legitimacy of a decision, builds the capacity of all involved to engage in the policy process, can lead to better results for the environmental and social objectives, enhance trust and understanding among stakeholders and produces a decision that has a longer staying power and effectiveness.

Engelhaupt also notes the views of the opponents of public participation: “Critics say that public input slows decision making and muddies the scientific waters with nonexpert opinions.” Indeed, governmental decisions that affect health and the environment tend to be very complex and require diverse types of scientific expertise in focused, technical, and occasionally mind-boggling areas of research. However, a demonstrated need for scientific clarity and know-how is not a reason to shut the public out of decisions that can literally affect their life and death or the future of their children. While the precise environmental fate and transport of air and water pollutants or the complexities of industrial chemical safety protocols may be an area of expert analysis, the decisions on how to approach these pollutants are simply too important to be left in the hands of career technocrats, who, more often than not, live and work in areas that are not affected by those self-same pollutants.

While there is no single ideal design for public participation in environmental decisions (and that’s a good thing, because flexibility is important), the NRC report makes a series of recommendations for integrating public involvement into scientific decisions. As a starting point, government agencies need to treat public debate not as a pesky distraction to their over-busy schedule, not as a “merely formal procedural requirement,” but as an essential element of democracy and participatory government. This requires, as the NRC writes, transparency of the process, good-faith communication, adequate funding and staff for the duration of the process, promoting explicitness about assumptions and uncertainties, and – here is an important one – paying explicit attention to both facts and values. Certainly, there are areas of science where we are still waiting for additional facts to come in. But – whether we are talking about endocrine disrupting substances in the environment that threaten the reproductive future of humans and animals, global climate change and its effects on our waters, agriculture, and health, or worker exposure to toxic chemicals at doses that have never been demonstrated to be safe – expert deliberations need to be informed by and opened to the sense of urgency felt by the public, not used to offer false reassurances of safety.

In an ideal world, scientific experts both within and outside of government agencies would be directly involved with the society – both as educators and as co-workers. Through diagnosis, monitoring, and collaborative choices, we have a hope of arriving to health-and life-protective decisions that allow all of us to flourish. We all want to live in a society based on conscious, informed, active citizenship participation. Allowing the people to actually play a role in this process would be a good start.

Olga Naidenko is a Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group (Washington, DC); she holds a PhD degree in immunology from the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute. Prior to joining EWG, she worked in Los Angeles, San Diego, and St. Louis, conducting research in molecular and structural immunology. At EWG, Olga focuses on human health effects of chemical pollution.

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