Scientific Minds are a Terrible Thing to Waste

The Michigan Environmental Science Board was created in 1992 specifically to provide scientific and technical guidance to regulators and policymakers. The MESB is an autonomous agency comprised of an executive director, who is a civil servant, and nine members appointed by the governor. Members — who serve without pay — are selected based on their expertise in the disciplines of engineering, ecological science, chemistry, physics, toxicology, pharmacology, biological sciences, human medicine, statistics, risk management, geology, economics and other academic disciplines. The governor submits inquiries to the science board, which is expected to conduct investigations without interference from politically appointed state government officials.

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Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration should take full advantage of the scientific expertise that the MESB provides for dealing with complex environmental issues. The MESB has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and academicians as a highly credible source of scientific review. The MESB also could provide credible performance audits of the efficacy of environmental statutes and regulatory programs.

Since its inception, the MESB has produced 18 scientific reports on a wide range of environmental issues, including the impact of mercury, chlorine and lead on human health and reports on the potential effects of directional drilling for oil and gas under the Great Lakes. The voice of the MESB has been silent lately, however; of those 18 reports, only one has been requested during the past three years — a study of what chemicals should be included in a biomonitoring project that would track toxins in humans.

There is certainly no shortage of environmental issues that could benefit from scientific investigation. Examples that readily come to mind include: the effects of exotic species in the Great Lakes; how to prevent devastation of the state ash trees by the Emerald Ash Borer; biological modeling of uptake of dioxin by humans in Midland and along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers; and the validity of models that predict the effect of groundwater withdrawals on surface water levels.

Decision makers are not bound to follow the recommendations of the MESB in formulating policy and legislation. For example, the Legislature’s ban on directional drilling for oil and gas under the Great Lakes ran contrary to the findings of the MESB.

Nevertheless, it is important that policymakers employ scientific facts when writing environmental laws and regulations that have a significant impact on Michigan’s job providers and residents.

Let us hope that the infrequent use of the science board is not due to an attitude that science is irrelevant to the Granholm Administration’s environmental agenda. There was a marked difference of opinion between the governor and Legislature on whether or not to wait for the findings of a scientific study on groundwater in the state before undertaking a new groundwater regulatory program. The Legislature, and particularly Sen. Patti Birkholtz, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee, was adamant that new groundwater regulation not be undertaken until a study of the nature and extent of groundwater in Michigan was conducted. In contrast, the governor was adamant that we should regulate groundwater without waiting for the scientific review. The Legislature passed less restrictive groundwater legislation after the MESB issued its findings. This approach seems the wiser of the two options.

Michigan environmental policy is too important to ignore scientific facts in favor of political expedience. It is time to return to the use of sound science to guide regulatory decisions. A greater reliance on the existing and available resources of the Michigan Environmental Science Board is a good place to start.


Russ Harding is senior environmental policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.