OSHA, Conflicts of Interest, and Contacting Your Senator

On 5 April, two weeks ago, Rebecca Watson made a video about several politicians fighting transparency in scientific studies.

In a nutshell, OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is looking to determine what level of silica will be safe for a workplace environment, as when it is cut or drilled it can become a respiratory health issue.

Watson in this video discusses the efforts of several politicians to push back against the call for any studies submitted to OSHA on this issue to disclose any conflicts of interest. This seems completely backwards and against the legitimate effort to reach the most accurate conclusion possible. Conflicts of interest can and do bias research in favor of the companies or individuals funding it. This results in misleading claims or, in this case, bad policy.

Worse still is the fact that the politicians, who co-signed a letter detailing their objection, have received money from companies who would benefit from this occlusion of study funding. So the irony is a little strong.

The reasoning in the letter is specious at best:

We are also very concerned about OSHA’s attempt to have commenters disclose their financial backers. Disclosing the funding sources of commenters who submit scientific or technical research raises questions about whether OSHA will use that information to prejudge the substance of those comments and could results in dissuading stakeholders from even submitting comments.

This seems to come from a simplistic mentality that All Science Is Created Equal, which doesn’t seem surprising given many politicians’ ignorance and lack of appreciation of science, statistics, and data. This portion of the letter implies that OSHA alone has the capability to act dishonestly, improperly, or in a biased manner, and prematurely eject “objective” information. It ignores the reality of researcher bias that is pervasive and must be constantly assessed. Not all studies are equally reputable, reliable, and accurate.

I can’t recall the last time I’d written something to my representative before. But I noticed that Johnny Isakson, one of my Senators from Georgia, co-signed that letter. I decided that now was a perfect opportunity to make this effort and possibly see results on this blatantly wrong move.

I went to his website and filled in the contact form with this:

[To] my understanding, OSHA is currently considering arguments concerning permissible levels of silica in the workplace. In a recent letter to OSHA, I was alarmed at the objection [of] 16 senators, including Mr. Isakson, that financial backers be disclosed. (http://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/2013_1121_OSHA_silica_letter_FINAL.pdf)

Not all scientific studies are created equal, and ones funded by organizations with a clearly desired outcome will generally lean that way. To not be extremely interested in the reliability of the data and conclusions presented to OSHA on this matter is shocking to me. Accuracy in deciding policy should not be second to protecting corporate interests.

Your concern, from the letter, that OSHA may “prejudge” comments based on funding puts a hypothetical, and even a valid response, before clear communication. It puts fuzzy ignorance before honest transparency. Funding sources affect outcomes and motivations.

Further evidence of this is found in a maplight website, which details the funding Mr. Isakson has received that could also be construed as a conflict of interest: http://maplight.org/content/73438

Please reconsider your position on this matter. Instead of being concerned about the effects transparency could have on scientific inquiry, be bothered by the very real effects opacity has on integrity and clarity.

I was alerted to this issue by the following YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCHTDQCpktI

I was proud that I wrote and timely sent that without scrutinizing it to death, typos and all. On 18 April, two weeks later, I got a response:

Dear Georgia Tech Research Institute Llewallyn:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding federal policy.  I appreciate your thoughts and the opportunity to respond.

As a member of the United States Senate, I am pleased to see constituents, such as you, taking the time to develop suggestions for our nation’s policies and programs.  Your letter will be helpful to me as we continue to enhance legislative policy here in America and improve our great nation.

Thank you again for contacting me, and I hope you will not hesitate to call on me in the future if I can be of assistance to you.

Johnny Isakson
United States Senator

So, essentially the response was as canned as a canned reply could be. Clearly they didn’t check my name, didn’t address the specific area in which I was reaching out, and didn’t answer until two full weeks later.

So a disappointing result from my effort, to be sure. But as I’m at this point in the post, I’m asking myself what’s next. Why should I call this the end? Until I get a personal, significant reply, one that addresses my issues with the letter and my representative’s hypocritical appeal to opacity, I should try again!

And if you care about laws in the United States being created on sound, rational footing, then you should also reach out if your Senator is on this list (from Watson’s video description):

  • Michael Enzi, Wyoming
  • James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, Oklahoma
  • Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, Kansas
  • David Vitter, Louisiana
  • Lamar Alexander, Tennessee
  • Tim Scott, South Carolina
  • Jim Risch, Idaho
  • Marco Rubio, Florida
  • Johnny Isakson, Georgia
  • Lisa Murkowski, Alaska
  • Ron Johnson, Wisconsin
  • Mark Kirk, Illinois
  • Orrin Hatch, Utah
  • Richard Burr, North Carolina

MapLight.org‘s post on this issue was a valuable source for information for this post.

Edit: My next message is below:

Two weeks ago I wrote a message to express my disappointment and hope for change of Isakson’s position on conflict of interest disclosure for a current assessment of studies for OSHA.

Recently I received a canned reply that offered no substantial response to my questions and criticism.

I would like to understand why the known conflict of interest bias in scientific studies is not important when deciding policy to one of my Senators.

This issue is my first time contacting a representative that I can remember. I don’t find this to be a partisan or even complicated issue, so I would hope I could receive more information on his position.

I wrote more about my position and my included my previous message here: http://enduringbeta.com/2014/04/20/osha-conflicts-of-interest-and-contacting-your-senator/

Edit (2014-05-03): I gave a presentation on this topic at Atlanta Skepticamp! I’ll link to the video when it comes up. The slides are here.

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