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A Breathless Moment in Loony Land

The GOP has made a couple of moves lately that are so bizarre, so insane, so utterly wackadoddle crazy that it is becoming difficult to grasp that these proposals have actually been put forward by presumably sane people. Here’s the latest candidate for the year’s stupidest, most incoherent and ridiculous proposal (to date — I suspect they’ll come up with something that trumps this one):

Bill H.R. 1422 (aka the Science Advisory Board Reform Act): First, a short primer on Science Advisory Boards. They are a staple of governments everywhere. They are created to provide advice on matters that pertain to scientific understanding and how scientific advances link with governmental policy. In 1978 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a Science Advisory Board for just this purpose. The board’s functions focus on the environment and their advice dovetails on the translation of scientific advances into public policy. Makes sense, yes? Of course it does — provided that you’re not a brain-dead Republican.

Representative Chris Steward (R-UT), the prime sponsor of H.R. 1422, is not happy with the kinds of advice scientists have been providing the EPA. The key clause in his piece of legislation states “Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work.”

If you read that slowly and carefully, it should take your breath away. What is says is that any scientist who has published research on a topic that comes under consideration for policy issues will be, should this snippet of insanity become law, forbidden from giving testimony or providing advice to the Board on that topic.

Of course, the way scientists become expert on a topic is by doing research on it and publishing their findings and theories in peer-reviewed journals. Were this bill to become law, these individuals would be prevented from providing any advice to the government. In short, it would block any scientist of note from providing advice to a Science Advisory Board.

Now in what totally insane world would this be a desirable goal? A significant lacuna in this bill lets you see the answer. There is nothing in it that prevents those with financial or business interests in the issues under discussion from presenting their perspectives and views or providing advice to the Board.

Take a hypothetical (but likely) scenario: the topic before, say the EPA, is climate change. A distinguished scientist with decades of research into meteorology and the impact of human activities on global climate and the CEO of a major oil production corporation who has deep financial interests in denying any anthropogenic role in climate change both ask to provide testimony.

Only the latter would be permitted to present his/her point of view.

As Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, this bill would turn the very notion of “conflict of interest” on its head. The scientist with no conflict would be barred from providing testimony while those with compelling financial interests would be given full access to present their views.

Obama has said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. This is comforting but I can’t help wondering what might happen if this crazy, benighted electorate were to put a Republican in the White House in 2016.

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