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OMB Data Quality Standards (12-23-04)

In an effort to ensure that information released by the US Government is accurate, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released Information-Quality Guidelines on February 22, 2002. These were In accordance with the Data Quality Act (Section 515 of Public Law 106-554) OMB issued guidelines to promote "the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies.'' The OMB also directed all federal agencies to draft their own guidelines to correct information that did not comply with those released by OMB by October 1, 2002. Of particular interest to the geoscience community are scientific findings promulgated by federal agencies.

Most Recent Action

On December 17th the White House Office of Management and Budget issued "peer review" guidelines aimed at formalizing the process of science performed by government agencies undergoing outside review. Science used by the U.S. EPA, the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to support major rules and regulations will be subject to review by non-governmental experts for the first time under these new standards.

According to Greenwire, supporters of the guidelines -- in the Bush administration and industry -- say they will help ensure that federal policy is shaped by sound scientific practices. But critics claim the guidelines are an effort by the executive branch to seize control of the release of scientific information and slow the creation of new federal rules.

The guidelines separate scientific information meriting peer review into two types. The first requires federal agencies to appoint an independent peer review panel for science supporting rules or policies costing industry, states or local governments more than $500 million in any year. While this is a higher cost threshold than industry officials wanted, Sean Moulton, a information policy analyst at OMB Watch, said OMB can effectively order an agency review by designating this type of science "highly influential." The second type of science affected by the guidelines is "influential scientific information," such as risk assessments, environmental and natural resources computer modeling, data and other technical analyses. Agencies can subject these types of scientific information to the same rigorous peer review as highly influential science or they can get them peer reviewed by a small group of experts in one environmental or natural resources discipline.

Agencies can subject influential scientific information to the lower level of peer review, but the guidelines direct agencies to "choose a peer review mechanism that is adequate" based on a variety of factors including whether science is new, the extent of prior peer reviews, and the expected costs and benefits that will result from its use. "More rigorous peer review is necessary for information that is based on novel methods or presents complex challenges for interpretation," the rule states.

Greenwire reported that the White House substantially revised the guidelines since they were first proposed in September 2003 (see below). Among the changes is a proposal that would grant federal agencies the right to release scientific documents about an "emerging public health or medical risk" without first getting OMB approval. Another change OMB made was to make clear that science already reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences is not subject to the peer review guidelines.

The new guidelines can be found online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/inforeg/peer2004/peer_bulletin.pdf. (12/23/04)

Previous Action

On August 29th, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a proposal to standardize an independent peer review process for all "significant regulatory information" released by federal agencies. Public comments, which can be submitted electronically to OMB_peer_review@omb.eop.gov, are due by October 28th, and the final guidelines are expected to go into effect by February 2004.

Although some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), already have a peer review protocol in place, no uniform federal peer review standards currently exist. In an introduction to the proposed new standards, OMB explained that agencies are generally aware of conflicts of interest that industry scientists might face. In the past, agencies have therefore often overlooked potential conflicts of interest encountered by scientists associated with the agencies themselves. To support this statement, OMB cited material from a number of organizations, including the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Oct. 2000 Guidelines to Publication of Geophysical Research, which asserts that conflicts of interest can result from internal peer review.

OMB went on to explain that even when the reviewers have been independent, agencies have tended to call on the same set of reviewers for many projects. This has led to the perception that each agency has only chosen reviewers whose opinions match its own agenda.

Senior OMB official John Graham maintained that the proposed guidelines would help ensure that agency regulation has a sound scientific basis. In a press release he stated "Peer review is an effective way to further engage the scientific community in the regulatory process…. The goal is fewer lawsuits and a more consistent regulatory environment, which is good for consumers and business." The Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be most heavily affected by the proposed new peer review standards, Graham has said.

The new guidelines would oblige federal agencies to submit to OMB once a year a list of all planned scientific studies relating to regulatory matters, along with descriptions of accompanying review processes. They would also require each reviewer to disclose any interest that he or she might have in the subject matter in question.

The proposed standards would apply to all documents that either impact regulatory policies or that contain "influential" information as defined by OMB's Information- Quality Guidelines. Information released in support of a regulatory policy would be subject to the new guidelines as would information that might have a deliberate or unintended sway over the public or private sector. The proposal would additionally cover information of "significant interagency interest," or that relates to an Administration policy priority. Independent peer review would not be required, however, for grant applications or scientific studies unrelated to regulatory issues. Nor would this process be required for information that has already undergone the process of peer review, such as in "respected" (OMB's term) scientific journals.

The private sector could also gain a new avenue to probe the validity of agency regulations. Firms would be able to question the scientific basis of regulations that cost industry more than $100 million per year, requiring the regulating agency to submit the science behind the regulation to a panel of independent reviewers. The agency itself would have the power to appoint this panel, although the OMB has asked for public comment on whether an independent, centralized body would be better suited for this task. Reviewers might include specialists from another program within the agency, or could come from outside of the agency. Graham said that most reviewers would be from universities.

Provisions for adequate reviewer access to information on both the issue to be reviewed and its broader context also appear in the proposed guidelines. OMB has found this to be lacking in current agency peer review practice. In addition, OMB aims to make the new process more transparent by including an explanation of how each agency has complied with the proposed guidelines in its administrative records. The agency would also be required to provide OMB with a list of all "non-frivolous information quality correction requests" within a week.

Reactions to OMB's plan have been mixed, with numerous private sector representatives supporting the proposal. As Greenwire reported, Jim Solyst, science policy director for the American Chemistry Council, dismissed the possibility that the new proposal would mix politics with scientific research. He maintained that an independent review process would not "automatically lead to a policy decision." Jim Tozzi, former OMB official under Presidents Nixon and Regan, agreed. Now a member of the board of advisors for the industry-linked Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, he lauded the possibility of revaluating some environmental and dietary guidelines under the new rules. As the Washington Post reported, Tozzi threw his support behind the initiative, proclaiming, "What this document does is put additional teeth in what is meant by peer review."

Others, on the other hand, have decried the proposed measure as an Administration scheme to slow down the regulatory process. As The New York Times reported, Dr. Kurt Gottfried, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Cornell University and Chairman of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed his doubt: "One would hope this kind of review would prevent the kind of abuses that the administration has engaged in pretty systematically. I have to say I'm pretty skeptical about what the intention is here." Georgetown University law professor, health and environmental policy specialist and Center for Progressive Regulation Member Scholar Lisa Heinzerling also questioned Graham's intentions, given his paltry support for health and environmental regulations in the past. According to The Washington Post, she maintained that "this would be another weapon for the administration and its corporate allies to use against protective regulation."
Some organizations who oppose government intervention also took issue with the proposed new measure. Jerry Taylor, of the private, antiregulatory Cato Institute, claimed that sound science was not enough to justify a regulation. He told The New York Times that "there's unfortunately a belief out there that if we just get the science right then we can more easily adjudicate the disputes at E.P.A. and elsewhere, but that's just naïve." EPA does not anticipate a significant change in regulations that would result from the proposed new process, Greenwire reported.

The guidelines and press release are available as an Acrobat document from OMB at www.whitehouse.gov/omb/pubpress/2003-34.pdf.
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Electronic comments may be submitted to: OMB_peer_review@omb.eop.gov. Please put the full body of your comments in the text of the electronic message and as an attachment. Please include your name, title, organization, postal address, telephone number, and e-mail address in the text of the message. Comments may also be submitted via facsimile to (202) 395-7245. Comments may be mailed to Dr. Margo Schwab, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Office of Management and Budget, 725 17th Street, NW, New Executive Office Building, Room 10201, Washington, DC 20503. (9/9/2003)

Sources: Energy & Environment Daily, Greenwire, The New York Times, The Washington Post.

Contributed by Ashley M. Smith, 2003 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern; Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Program.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

 

Last updated on December 23, 2004


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