SCAMming Environmental Policy

William Freudenburg, Robert Gramling, and Debra Davidson
On December 21, 2004, a U.S. federal task force issued its final report on proposals to allow U.S. citizens to import prescription drugs from Canada. Because the task force "could not be sure" that the imported drugs would be safe, its members recommended that the practice remain illegal.

The next day. a different federal agency, the Forest Service, decided it could not be sure that logging would be bad for the environment. It therefore eliminated the requirements for preparing Environmental Impact Statements in Forest Plans and for protecting "viable" species from destruction through logging.

These back-to-back announcements illustrate the importance of an often-overlooked fact: many "scientific" agency
decisions are made on the basis not of solid scientific findings but of pervasive scientific uncertainty. On one day, officials decide that uncertainty means importing drugs would be risky; the next, other officials decide that uncertainty means logging would be safe. So it goes with thousands of such decisions every year. Despite many calls for more science, the key factor influencing outcomes often has to do with what an agency decides when there's no real way to know whether something is truly safe or not.