Number 33, April 2002
The Data Quality Act and the Atmospheric Sciences
Imagine that medical scientists developed in a laboratory a new
drug that they believed held great promise of societal benefit.
Could they then hang a shingle and begin offering the drug for sale
to the general public? Of course not. Because of the potential for
unexpected, adverse effects, all new drugs must go through some
form of testing to evaluate costs and benefits before they are approved.
But in the world of policy, unlike the world of medicine, there
are frequently times when dramatic interventions are introduced
with no prior systematic consideration of their potential effects.
Quality Act," to become law October 1, 2002, is one such
intervention. According to its supporters the Act promises to revolutionize
the role of science in policy making by "ensuring and maximizing
the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity" of scientific
information. For a summary of the Act and related references, see
the WeatherZine news item on the Data Quality Act that follows.
Few would question the goals of quality, objectivity, utility
and integrity of information in the Data Quality Act. One might
expect that, as occurs in medicine, some period of analysis of the
effects of a particular policy intervention would precede broad
implementation. But with the Data Quality Act no such analysis has
occurred. (While the NRC is studying
the law, the law will go into effect regardless of the results of
Instead, according to a long-time congressional staffer familiar
with science policy, the Act had its origins in a political dispute
over air pollution. When EPA proposed to tighten regulations on
air pollution, opponents of the proposal felt hamstrung by an inability
to access the supporting scientific data because the research involved
human subjects and for other reasons. One result was a successful
effort to amend the Freedom of Information Act to apply to scientific
data, passed as a "rider" to a spending bill. The Data
Quality Act was passed as another "rider" to a 2001 spending
The term "rider" is inside-the-Beltway-speak for a piece
of (typically) unrelated legislation added to other legislation
-- often funding bills (called Appropriations). Many readers will
be more familiar with riders that provide a direct infusion of federal
dollars into congressional districts (i.e., "pork") for
capital projects like bridges and even for science (i.e. "earmarks").
An essential feature of such "riders" is that they can
largely escape the normal process of review and assessment that
characterizes legislation developed through congressional policy
committees. If the Data Quality Act has been systematically reviewed
or assessed, one won't find a record of it in congressional deliberations.
The lack of assessment and the highly politicized process that
led to the Data Quality Act will not be remembered as high points
in the development of United States science policies. Even so, it
is important to distinguish the process that led to the Act from
the content of the Act itself. And the content does have potential
to help stimulate some positive changes. Consider the following:
· A considerable amount of research produced by the weather
research community has potential for application but fails to make
it into the hands of end users. In the area of weather prediction
enhanced consideration of quality and utility of scientific information
could foster improved connections of "research" and "operations."
A 2000 National
Research Council Report labeled the gap between research and
operations a "valley
· To the extent that the Data Quality Act motivates serious
considerations of utility it could also help to facilitate the transfer
of science and technology from the public to the private sectors.
Given the vast potential for increased interactions at the interface
of federal research and commercial meteorology, any motivation
for closer connections would be of value.
· The Data Quality Act, again with its focus on usability,
could help make climate research more practical and of immediate
benefit. If so, programs such as the Regional
Integrated Science and Assessments of NOAA-OGP would benefit
under the Data Quality Act. (Note: here at the CIRES Center for
Science and Technology Policy Research we run one such RISA, the
Western Water Assessment.)
At the same time that there are potential benefits, there are
also valid concerns about potential negative consequences. In each
of the above examples the benefits are associated with a greater
consideration of the usability of science. However, none of the
cases is particularly political (at least by comparison to other
atmospheric sciences issues such as those explicitly focused on
In some issue areas there are valid concerns about the limits
of science in decision making. Scientific results are frequently
contested, and even if not contested, uncertain to some degree.
As a consequence, advocates and decision makers support particular
policies based on factors other than scientific findings. Recent
examples include controversy about streamflow
for salmon and farmers in the Klamath River Basin and the reappointment
of Robert Watson to chair the Intergovernmental panel on Climate
Proponents of the Act suggest that it will improve the information
base on which policies are made. James Tozzi, of the Center
for Regulatory Effectiveness, stated in the New York Times,
"Now in the world's most powerful government you're going to
have to issue information that's accurate." But opponents worry
that the Act would simply bias policy in favor of business-as-usual
in the face of uncertainty. Joanne Padrón-Carney, director
of the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, stated in the same New
York Times article, "We really would not like to have science
attacked as a way of being sure that policy isn't made." It
is difficult to resolve these perspectives.
To be sure, policy can benefit from improved connections of science
and decision making, and to the extent that the Data Quality Act
helps to address these connections it is a valuable addition to
the nation's science policies. But at the same time, there is great
potential for the Data Quality Act to further the politicization
of science and actually impair the connections of science and policy.
We won't know whether the Data Quality Act benefits or impairs national
science policies until it is implemented and analysts begin evaluating
its effects. Just like putting a new drug on the shelves without
any testing and seeing after-the-fact whether or not it improves
Roger Pielke, Jr.
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado
For further reading:
- Herrick, C. N. and D. Jamieson, 2000. Junk
Science and Environmental Policy: Obscuring Public Debate with
Misleading Discourse, Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly,
Vol. 21, Spring: 11-16.
- Pielke, R. A., Jr., 2002. Policy,
politics and perspective. Nature 416, 367-68.
- Sarewitz, D. 1999 (March draft). Science
and Environmental Policy: An Excess of Objectivity, a revised
version of this manuscript appears in: Earth Matters: The Earth
Sciences, Philosophy, and the Claims of Community (Prentice Hall,
2000), edited by Robert Frodemen pp. 79-98.