Paper: Legitimizing Values in Regulatory Science


Dan Hicks


March 14, 2019

A new paper by Manuela Fernández Pinto and me, “Legitimizing Values in Regulatory Science,” has just been published in Environmental Health Perspectives. This paper will be of interest to philosophers of science as well as the environmental public health community.


Background: Over the last several decades, scientists and social groups have frequently raised concerns about politicization or political interference in regulatory science. Public actors (environmentalists and industry advocates, politically aligned public figures, scientists and political commentators, in the United States as well as in other countries) across major political-regulatory controversies have expressed concerns about the inappropriate politicization of science. Although we share concerns about the politicization of science, they are frequently framed in terms of an ideal of value-free science, according to which political and economic values have no legitimate role to play in science. For several decades, work in philosophy of science has identified serious conceptual and practical problems with the value-free ideal.

Objectives: Our objectives are to discuss the literature regarding the conceptual and practical problems with the value-free ideal and offer a constructive alternative to the value-free ideal.

Discussion: We first discuss the prevalence of the value-free ideal in regulatory science, then argue that this ideal is self-undermining and has been exploited to delay protective regulation. To offer a constructive alternative, we analyze the relationship between the goals of regulatory science and the standards of good scientific activity. This analysis raises questions about the relationship between methodological and practical standards for good science, tensions among various important social goods, and tensions among various social interests. We argue that the aims of regulatory science help to legitimize value-laden choices regarding research methods and study designs. Finally, we discuss how public deliberation, adaptive management, and community-based participatory research can be used to improve the legitimacy of scientists as representatives of the general public on issues of environmental knowledge.

Conclusions: Reflecting on the aims of regulatory science—such as protecting human health and the environment, informing democratic deliberation, and promoting the capacities of environmental justice and Indigenous communities—can clarify when values have legitimate roles in regulatory science.