Robinson Meyer, in a recent article in The Atlantic, quotes law professor Wendy Wagner as follows:

People who are not scientists are telling us how scientific synthesis and analysis should be done... Politics has gone to a place that should be off limits, and no one is noticing and calling them on that fact.

The article draws attention to unequal treatment under the EPA of government grantees and industrial scientists, which may well be an example of inappropriate self-dealing by the Republican-controlled federal government. But leaving this aside, more generally, is it true that politicians should not be involved in making rules for scientists, as Dr. Wagner asserts?

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    @Gordon, I think user4894's comment makes sense in that "Nazi experimentation was pure unrestricted science... or it was science supported by evil politics. Clearly good politics is necessary for good science." Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:20
  • @Gordon You're right, I should have emphasized that this is a case where politicians SHOULD HAVE placed ethical limits. The fact that they didn't doesn't change my point, which I hope is now more clear.
    – user4894
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:21
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    If you have a bad set of politicians, of whatever kind, yes bad things can happen. Now this can theoretically be corrected in a democracy, but in an age when most people are playing on the internet (like I am doing now) we may not pay enough attention to what our politicians are doing. At the end of the day, many scientists need public money for research, and with the money comes the politicians. Strings will be attached.
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:32
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    @user4849 Sorry, I didn't mean to make a big deal about it. I think we probably can all agree that politicians are no gauarantee of ethical and beneficial research. In a democracy we can throw them out if we know about some bad trend in research funding. The thing is we often don't pay attention to the details of funding. It is not easy to do.
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:36
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    There's a very large gap between what Dr. Wagner is referring to and "not making rules for scientists". I believe you should change the phrase "as Dr. Wagner asserts", as that is not correct.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 5:34

7 Answers 7


In general, no, it is not inappropriate. Scientific research can take many forms, some of which could have negative effects on people. Pharmaceutical research, for example, follows a tightly controlled set of steps in researching a drug and getting it approved and marketed. You can't just brew something up in your garage and start dosing people with it. We're potentially limiting scientific advancement (one of those concoctions could be the cure for cancer), but the laws protect people from being harmed by unfettered scientific research. There are many examples of people being harmed by scientific research, from Nazi medical experiments to the Tuskegee study, and these sorts of methods are now outlawed in many places.

There should always be a good reason to pass laws governing scientific research - there needs to be a tradeoff between speedy advancement and possible harm. Good reasons include protecting people from injurious methods or limiting ethically/morally objectionable research. Political reasons, like limiting research simply because it may contradict proposed policy, are not good reasons. In this particular case, the tradeoff may not be sufficient, as only minor harm may be avoided with this law. But in general, it's absurd to say that no laws should ever restrict what is allowed in pursuit of scientific inquiry.

  • Would you be willing to specify what's a political reason and what's a "harm avoidance" reason? Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:42
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    This doesn't seem to be quite the same thing as what the original quote is discussing: there, the politicians aren't just making rules about what the scientists are allowed to do, but about what existing information they are allowed to take into consideration, and by extension, what conclusions they are allowed to draw. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 21:31
  • @HarryJohnston However, OP has specifically stated that they are "leaving that aside", and are looking for an answer about the situation "more generally" - which this answer covers very well. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 14:31
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    @rus9384: I'd have said that your concern is ethical rather than scientific. IMHO the garage scientist can do as proper science as any project that does have ethical (and/or regulatory) approval. They can even be as ethical. But the political decision has been to not just trust that people are doing their research in an ethical fashion. Instead they are required to prove that (e.g. by getting ethical approval). (And IMHO the regulations as far as I know them are not very good in ensuring good science - neither are they meant to: most focus on making unethical behaviour difficult). Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 17:46
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    Of course you can "just brew something up in your garage" - that's perfectly normal. You grab some snakes out of the mud of the local polluted river, seeing feces swim by, put the muddy snakes in a bag. Go home, throw the stinking bag into your garage. Next morning, you take the bag into a clean bag and to your laboratory. What did you think where to look for new antibiotics? Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 19:04

The rule that the article appears to be concerned with is Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OA-2018-0259 and has this as part of the summary.

This document proposes a regulation intended to strengthen the transparency of EPA regulatory science. The proposed regulation provides that when EPA develops regulations, including regulations for which the public is likely to bear the cost of compliance, with regard to those scientific studies that are pivotal to the action being taken, EPA should ensure that the data underlying those are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation.

From a quick reading I don't see why anyone would object to this transparency rule.

I also find it hard to see from reading two of Meyer's articles in The Atlantic what the various positions are on the issue of this proposed rule. His articles appear to me to be a one-sided opposition to it.

We are also thrown red herrings such as the following which adds to my suspicion:

In the paper, the experts provide a short summary of the use of science in government, demonstrating why the Trump interference is so unprecedented. Wagner told me that the best comparison to the new proposals is an erroneous effort by the Indiana state legislature at the end of the 19th century to establish the value of pi as 3.2....

Why is he telling us about a 19th century precedent to a rule that is allegedly "unprecedented"? What does this legislation of pi by the state of Indiana have to do with this proposed transparency rule?

Here is the question:

...is it true that politicians should not be involved in making rules for scientists, as Dr. Wagner asserts?

Politicians legislate, execute and maintain a judiciary to interpret various laws to serve the country. It is doubtful that scientists have a privileged position that allows them to avoid being regulated by these rules and laws.


Federal Register / Vol. 83, No. 83 / Monday, April 30, 2018 / Proposed Rules https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-04-30/pdf/2018-09078.pdf

Meyer, R. "Even Geologists Hate the EPA's New Science Rule", The Atlantic July 17, 2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/07/scott-pruitts-secret-science-rule-could-still-become-law/565325/

Meyer, R. "Trump's Interference With Science Is Unprecedented", The Atlantic November 9, 2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/experts-warn-trump-epa-meddling-scientific-method/575377/

  • Skeptics.SE or Politics.SE might be a good place to ask why "EPA should ensure that the data underlying those are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation" has been associated with "the Indiana state legislature at the end of the 19th century to establish the value of pi as 3.2...."
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 3:50
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    "From a quick reading I don't see why anyone would object to this transparency rule". On the surface, yes, it looks great. However, one implication of this: "the rule would effectively bar the agency from using public-health research—or any other research that relies on private medical records" (from linked article in discussion). Not being allowed to use public health data to make public health decisions is pretty bad.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 5:05
  • @CliffAB At the end the article mentions Many researchers seem to believe that the rules set up surmountable obstacles, she said, when they may actually endanger entire swaths of regulation. So apparently there are many who can live with this rule. The OP's question whether politicians should be involved in making rules for scientists has an obvious answer regardless of this article: scientists are not above the law whatever that law happens to be. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 13:35
  • @FrankHubeny: I, and I'm sure Dr. Wagner, certainly agree scientists are not above the law. Given what I've seen so far, it's my understanding that Dr. Wagner is concerned with an effort to censor scientific conclusions and limit how science can be used to help shape public policy. I'd venture to guess that Dr. Wagner read STRS and thought "how might the current administration use this law to silence our work?". This is certainly pessimistic, but given that Scott Pruitt was assigned head of the EPA by the administration, I don't think it's entirely irrational pessimism.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 23:27

There is a very large difference between "making rules for science" and "People who are not scientists are telling us how scientific synthesis and analysis should be done."

Do scientists need some form of regulation? Sure. The material covered in courses on medical ethics will let you know exactly how bad things can get when there is no oversight. There's nothing special about scientists that make them above the law, and I've never met one who thinks otherwise (I haven't met Dr. Wagner, but I'm sure she agrees with this too).

In addition, there already is plenty of oversight in what scientists study; a typical process is that an agency declares it is interested in studying "X", scientists write a proposal declaring how they plan to study "X" and if the agency choices the scientist's proposal, they receive funding and begin their study. During the study, periodic updates are given to the funding agency and at the end, the conclusions are written up and sent back to the agency. Typically, the results are also made public in the form of academic publications. In these kinds of projects, the scientists are contracted to do certain work. If they do not fulfill their contract, due either to gross neglect or fraud, the agency can make them repay the funds (although this is extremely rare).

However, this is not what Dr. Wagner is complaining about.

Her complaint is that the scientific community has been collecting data, building models and coming to conclusions about how the world works. However, there has been a strong effort by our current administration to hamper the ability of these scientists to communicate their results to the public. For example, the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, which on the surface sounds great (who's actually against open science?), has some pretty serious implications, such as not being able to use medical records to help guide regulation related to public health or not being able to use studies whose data is no longer available (very likely to be any study that is over 20 years old, for example) to guide policy.

In short, of course there should be some forms of regulation of science. But this is not what Dr. Wagner is complaining about. She's complaining about silencing scientific research for purely political purposes. It's pretty hard to argue that stifling public health research for political purposes is acceptable (although it's not clear that its entirely new ground).


@FrankHubeny raises a question related to whether one of the laws that Dr. Wagner refers to will be used to suppress the influence on public policy. This is debatable, but clearly we know which side of the argument Dr. Wagner falls on (I personally sit somewhere in the middle: in general open data is good, but the research world is already pushing for this on its own and I'm skeptical about how actual applications of the law would turn out). Given that the question is in regards to whether science should be regulated, not the effect of specific laws on science, I think the answer to given the question is: Yes, scientists should have regulation, just as any citizen should (no murder, etc.). But that is not Dr. Wagner's concern, rather she is worried about suppression of scientific results for political purposes.

@MichealKay asks what is "for political purposes"? I agree this is a slippery slope. If you think climate science is all hog-wash, then it's the right thing to do to be "suppressing" fraud. On the other hand, if you do have faith in the climate scientists, it seems extremely immoral to be suppressing warnings to the public about potential future catastrophes because it might lead to a political opponent receiving more votes.

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    Depends what you mean by "political purposes". For example, if there's an area of research that 10% of your electorate find objectionable for religious reasons, is banning that research a "political purpose" or not? The answer probably depends on whether you're part of that 10%. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 12:00
  • From your link the problem appears to be releasing identifying information in health records. This identifying information can be removed and replaced with an id number. Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 13:55

Is it inappropriate for politicians to make rules governing scientific research?

If you think that animal testing of cosmetic products is Bad And Must Be Stopped, then you think it's perfectly appropriate for politicians to make rules governing scientific research.

  • Heck, if you think Mengele-like experiments should be stopped, you think it's appropriate to have politicians make rules. Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 21:34
  • @DavidThornley I'm not sure Mengele performed scientific experiments, as much as "let's see what happens when..."
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 22:15

The EPA is a tax payer funded entity. Of course the politicians who fund the EPA get to decide how those funds are spent; they are representing us and our reluctantly furnished dollars.

If the scientists concerned would like to establish some independent funding, then they can do as they please. Government scientists, however, must work under the rules of their employment.

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    Are the scientists not tax payers? Or the citizens who disagree with the politicians?
    – Cell
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 5:10
  • Suppose the EPA receives funding to study an issue. The scientists come to the conclusion "X is true". Those who are in charge of the funding find that inconvenient, so they try their best to suppress the findings which have large public health impacts. Are the funders acting in an ethical manner in this case?
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 18:22

There are times when restricting scientific research because of politics is a good idea.
There are times when restricting scientific research because of politics is a bad idea.

There are a few different objects involved here. The first one, which is completely overlooked in the debates is outright safety. Some substances used in research are dangerous and the researchers need to be protected, and the waste products carefully disposed of, etc. Boring.

Yet many other times the reason given is because of some overriding moral concern. You do not experiment on humans without consent. Ref: Tuskegee. This is in fact a very good example of a moral failure. There really was some question in the beginning of whether syphilis treatments did more harm than good, and some would say the deceit was worth the cost. But once down the path, they would not turn from it when it changed from remotely plausible to ridiculous because in the meantime an actual cure appeared in the form of antibiotics. There could be no justification for not shutting down the study immediately as moot and treating all of them, yet they would not.

Today we see these that read along the lines of "thou shalt not clone humans" or "thou shalt not make human embryos in the lab". Consider what happens to the embryos when the experiment is done. There is a large segment of the population that believes utterly that life begins at conception, and that killing the embryos is murder. The governments of the world must put down murder as a practice. (This is not the same as not letting a murderer get away with it just because they can't prove it.) The penalty of a government that will not impose a penalty for murder is to fall into lawlessness because the avengers of blood will appear. So do not be surprised when such regulations come from the government. That is its job.

And then you get things along the lines of "do not test cosmetics on animals". Who can say if this is right or wrong. I am completely against unnecessary suffering yet I cannot answer. But many in the government listen to the people who think they can. Are they right to do so? This question is approximately equivalent to the first question. Failure to do the necessary kills people. Sometimes the ban results another pathway appearing that wasn't even considered before.

I recall in the early 2000's all this debate about Bush banning experimentation on the remains of aborted fetuses. He did nothing of the sort: he just issued an executive order refusing to pay for said experiments. This kind of thing is completely within the scope of government authority, and reverse is horrible. The government must be permitted to spend its money or not more or less at will. If they refuse to pay for scientific advance in certain fields, that's not a decision that can be opposed on moral grounds. There are essentially no scientific advances that must be done to the point of requiring the government to pay for it, and it would be ridiculously difficult to cite an example because hindsight is too keen.


Is it inappropriate for politicians to make rules governing scientific research?

Since scientific approach is found rare in politics, most often it is inappropriate. It becomes appropriate when majority of the people feels that 'that politics' is scientifically developed and those politicians are completely reliable for the well-being of their nation and also for the world. (Why I said "also for the world?" Ans: You may think about Global Warming, Highly dangerous nuclear weapons, medicines, chemicals etc.)

If the politicians' involvement does not affect badly to their own country and other countries, even if their politics is unscientific they may make rules governing scientific research. Sometimes the rules won't promote prosperity. But the people who elected should suffer even though it is only for stability. Though unscientific approach I am complaisant because it is the politicians not the scientists who are elected by the people. And it is supposed that good politicians do have the ability to unite the people to build a great Nation.

[N.B: Here the word 'scientific' is used in a broader sense.]

  • I feel by "broader sense" you mean you are including technocracy.
    – rus9384
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 14:42
  • @rus9384, Mere technocrats can't render happiness to the whole world for a long period. So, humanitarian values should also be given more importance. Politicians can implement a foolish rule scientifically. That was why I said so. – SonOfThought 1 hour ago Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 16:56
  • Technocrats who have their purpose to render happiness to the whole world for a long period can render happiness to the whole world for a long period after anough effort.
    – rus9384
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 18:13
  • @rus9384, I think my reply should deviate from the main question:) Anyway I should answer your question. Is human development physically only? Why many rich people nowadays even psychologists in different parts of the world seek or advise for spiritual development? I think, even they don't know what they are seeking actually. Human body is made up of cells and it will always be so whatever scientists call new tinier particles. So everybody will certainly and eventually undergo an all-round-development 'today or in a distant future' because 'each soul' is precious and great. Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 1:39
  • You say that it is OK to choose religion over science to achieve stability (with some suffering). How stable are those countries when some neighbor countries choose science?
    – amI
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 9:00

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