Editorial

Nature 448, 624 (9 August 2007) | doi:10.1038/448624a; Published online 8 August 2007

A risky business

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The White House risk-assessment bulletin should be put out of its misery.

Last November, the US National Academy of Sciences delivered a stinging verdict on a White House plan to change the rules on how the government's agencies measure risks, such as those resulting from chemical exposure or from smoking cigarettes. The academy said that a draft risk-assessment bulletin containing the plan was "fundamentally flawed" and ought to be completely withdrawn.

Ten months later, the bulletin is still very much alive. After some hesitancy, Susan Dudley, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has indicated that it is still under review and likely to be finalized in some shape or form.

Risk assessment is a complex and exacting activity, and the National Academies have played a globally acknowledged role over many years in providing guidance on how it should be done. But the academy panel, chaired by John Ahearne, a former president of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and director of ethics at the scientific society Sigma Xi, said that the bulletin was wrong in attempting to impose a "one-size-fits-all" approach to risk assessment overseen by so political an office as the OMB. It also charged that the bulletin failed to take account of the different approaches appropriate to the various fields of science and engineering, or of risks to particular groups, such as children or pregnant women.

Outside critics were even more direct. They saw the bulletin as a barely disguised power grab, a cynical attempt by the White House to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over all the branches of the federal government, with a view to making it harder for major regulators such as the Environmental Protection Agency to do their jobs (see Nature 442, 242–243; 2006). Indeed, the main objective of the bulletin seems to be to weaken these regulators 'through the back door', by imposing arcane bureaucratic requirements that the broader public won't understand, or even know about.

In that regard, the proposed bulletin resembles several earlier efforts, including rules on 'information quality' and requirements for cost–benefit analyses, that make use of the OMB's extensive powers to weaken all forms of regulation. These efforts have been under way from the very start of the Bush administration and they continue to this day.

Thankfully, Congress is now reacting to this strategy and applying some oversight to the OMB. In May, for example, Senators Jeff Bingaman (Democrat, New Mexico) and Joe Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) wrote to Rob Portman, then director of the OMB, to seek assurances that it would take the National Academy of Sciences' advice and withdraw the risk-assessment bulletin.

In an evasive response, Portman would say only that his office would "not finalize the bulletin without revision" — indicating, in effect, that it is planning to press ahead with the exercise in a revised form.

Now the senators have written to the OMB again, asking its officials to state by next week exactly how they intend to proceed, given the devastating critique issued by the academy panel last year. "We began our review of the draft bulletin thinking we would only be recommending changes," said Ahearne at the time. "But the more we dug into it, the more we realized that from a scientific and technical standpoint, it should be withdrawn altogether." The White House specifically went out and sought this advice: why won't it take it?