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Is farm bill's 'Sound Science Act' a Trojan horse?

Shortly before Christmas, when many Americans were busy finishing their holiday shopping, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) warned the Senate Agriculture Committee about an anti-science provision in the House version of the new farm bill. Markey and 12 of his Senate colleagues are worried that the innocuously named "Sound Science Act" would actually prevent government agencies from using cutting-edge science in their decision-making.

The formal title of the provision is "Ensuring High Standards for Agency Use of Scientific Information" and it can be found on page 560 [pdf] of the 609-page farm bill that was passed by the House. The provision states that "each Federal agency shall have in effect guidelines for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of scientific information relied upon by such agency."

Supporters of the provision, including Republican representatives Bill Huizenga, Dan Benishek, and Tim Walberg, argue that it will cut down on the 10,000 pages of regulations that they say farmers must follow to be in compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The thinking is that poorly executed "junk science" is driving overregulation of farm work and leading to needless regulations and wasted money.

However, detractors of the act argue that it will actually create needless procedural hurdles that will hamper the work of a whole host of federal agencies that function to protect the environment, safety, and human health. This is in part because the provision requires that federal agencies grant the "greatest weight to information that is based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data." This may sound well and good and even scientifically sound until you realize what types of studies such a provision would exclude. As Markey and his colleagues argue in their letter, this language would discount descriptive and theoretical research—including data from onetime events that cannot (or should not) be reproduced like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This provision has the real possibility of gumming up the work of agencies like the Food and Drug Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. These agencies have hired regulatory scientists specifically because these experts understand the scientific evidence behind the issues governed by these agencies. Wouldn't they know better than anyone which data to trust?

The Sound Science Act looks a lot like a Trojan horse. It sounds innocuous and positive—perhaps so much so that there were no hearings on this provision before it passed the House and several Senators did not even know the provision was part of the House bill—but it could have far reaching consequences. Now that warnings have been made, it will be interesting to see what happens to the act as the farm bill works its way through Congress.

You can read Markey's letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee about the Sound Science Act here.

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