The Trump administration's Jekyll and Hyde relationship with science

The Trump administration's Jekyll and Hyde relationship with science
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In a little-noticed memo, several weeks ago, the Office of Management and Budget modified its guidelines on the Information Quality Act (IQA). These modifications increase the responsibilities of agencies to carefully respond when a member of the public submits a complaint about information that the agency has made public. The revised guidelines are similar to an effort by the Environmental Protection Agency issued in April 2018, to “strengthen science used in EPA regulations.”

At the same time that the Trump administration is purporting to strengthen science, it is being regularly criticized for ignoring science and economics in many of its individual policy initiatives. The administration has worked to eliminate information on climate change from its websites. Its economic analysis of its regulations have been regularly criticized. Just last week reports surfaced regarding the EPA ignoring scientists when it issued new regulations on asbestos exposure.  

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How can we reconcile the Trump administration’s measures that they claim will strengthen the use of science with their disregard for scientific rigor in so many individual policy decisions? It would be easy to shout “hypocrisy” from the rooftops, but the reality is that it is more complicated (not to say that the hypocrisy argument is unwarranted).

When the administration is issuing a memo with general application, such as the one involving the Information Quality Act, it is acknowledging that eventually a different administration will be in power. A future Democratic administration will likely return to the norm of issuing regulations to protect public health and the environment. 

By requiring agencies to pay more attention to complaints about the information supporting these regulations, the memo gives those who oppose such future regulations more tools to fight them. It simultaneously raises the cost of writing regulations for future agencies.

Why doesn’t the administration worry that these tools will be used against the deregulatory efforts that rely upon shoddy science that it has engaged in? Well so far, the use of such tools in this manner has been uncommon. The IQA guidelines have been in place since 2002. While some organizations such as Democracy Forward and the National Employment Law Project have used the IQA to challenge Trump administration initiatives, these challenges have been few and far between.

Groups that support regulation have likely been reluctant to use the IQA because they feel that doing so will give legitimacy to a tool that they fear will eventually be used against regulation. But opponents of regulatory initiatives under a future administration will use these tools regardless of any perceived legitimacy. The Trump administration has provided a target rich environment in terms of relying upon low quality information. Those opposed to these deregulatory initiatives should be taking advantage of any tools that allow them to highlight the unsound science upon which many regulatory repeals rest.

A generation ago, cost-benefit analysis was seen as something that was inevitably going to be used to support deregulation. But as decades have shown, sound economics supports regulatory initiatives at least as often as it casts doubt upon them. As a result, regulatory proponents have begun to use cost-benefit analysis as a tool against deregulation

Ignoring tools like the IQA allows the Trump administration to claim to be pro-science and pro-analysis even while ignoring — or using low quality — science and economics on individual decisions. The Information Quality Act can be used the same way that cost-benefit analysis has been used. If the Trump Administration argues that they want to favor sound science, then make them put their money where their mouth is.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.