Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In Short There's Simply Not a More Congenial Spot

Last week I was an ad hoc member of a Scientific Advisory Panel at EPA for a chemical that has been reported to alter reproductive endpoints in amphibians.  It was an interesting experience, and I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks, but one unexpected outcome was that it made me very, very, very grateful that I work at a university…oh, Camelot of employers.    

More than one day of the meeting involved listening to public comments, and the company that makes the herbicide had the majority of that time.  We listened to the company and its scientists (or the university scientists it funded) provide arguments for their evaluation of the situation—often times reexamining the models developed by EPA scientists and interpreting the data available literature in, well, their own way.  We also listened to EPA scientists clarify their approach for arriving at safe environmental levels, as well as why we should or should not be concerned about effects on aquatic vertebrates.  The company had some points that were valid.  EPA had valid points.  And then they had to listen to the scientific advisory panel, which was probably less interesting to them than the comments they made were to me.  But the panelists had their own valid points.  Lots of talking and lots of listening.   Very exhausting.  Very interesting.

But the bottom line is that there are lots of great things about academics, which benefits scientists personally and the public at large.  (On the downside, many university scientists are not rich…but my father would argue that such things build character.)  First, academics can (and often do) say anything.  Academics have the freedom to be honest (and verbose) and really lay it on the line.  Do you think someone’s scientific approach is questionable or flawed?  Alas, then you can just say so and there’s really no one to answer to.  Your dean, departmental chairperson, and colleagues don’t really care if you express your scientific opinion—in fact, they may want to chat more about it and evaluate it themselves and come up with a cool experiment as a follow-up.  If you work in industry or are funded by industry, then whoever provides your bread may have some (or a lot) of sway over what you say publicly; and, even if the industry does not influence what its scientists say, there will always be the perception that they could.  Someone working for or being funded by a company loses the appearance of being objective and unbiased.  EPA scientists could be limited by their employer as well (or direct supervisor); and with changes in administration, the extent to which the scientists can express themselves can also change.  EPA may even suffer from a similar (but opposite) problem of public perception that industry is plagued with—the perception of bias:  EPA employees as tree huggers likely to make something appear worse than it is.  (Although, I must say that there was very little tree-hugging, or frog-hugging, on the issue I was involved with.)   

Second, as an academic on the panel evaluating the literature and the white paper put together for the panel, I had no vested interest in the outcome, which aids objectivity.  EPA has spent months (maybe years) putting together models to evaluate safe environmental levels and writing up the paper and appendices to clarify how they arrived at their conclusions.  If I was involved into anything that had appendices up to “Appendix N” I would definitely want things to go my way and wouldn’t want to have to be involved with any more appendices related to the topic ever again.  Industry is profiting from the market of their pesticide, so they have a vested interest in keeping it on the market at maximal rates.  Industry can cherry pick the data and develop models that suit their interests, and even believe they have been more objective than Spock himself.  As a scientist who never had an appendix past C, I could honestly care less if the chemical involved has an effect or not—the only thing I honestly care about is arriving at a scientific valid conclusion that nears the truth.  Because there is a truth—the chemical does or does not have effects that are biologically relevant at given concentrations—my only goal is that we arrive as close as possible to that destination.  Then it’s EPA’s job to decide how concerned they are about the potential effects and what they are going to do about them. 

A third reason to love academic life is that university scientists can do the research they want to do!  My lab is currently severely lacking in funds, but we can do a lot of things on a shoestring and are doing so.  No one tells us what we should be interested in or what we should examine, and there is great thrill in that which may not always be enjoyed by government or industry-funded scientists. 

Fourth, the situation of regulation is complicated, and as a scientist from a university, I can evaluate the data and express my opinion on what the right step is, but it cannot be easy to have to implement the change (EPA) or to have change implemented on one’s own livelihood (Industry).  The academics may be the marriage counselors in the whole process…at the end of the day, we walk away, but a lot of the hard decisions and work have to be done by others, and you just hope they have the courage and strength to take any good advice that was offered.

So, in the end, I am so happy to be home and I feel so enlightened and exhausted by the experience of seeing a small slice of the way the regulatory process works.  And, even better, I left with quite a few new ideas for experiments.