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Winter 2009 Vol. 8 Number 3

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Public Input Makes for Better Environmental Decisions

For over three decades U.S. citizens have organized themselves to help shape government decisions on environmental issues, from how EPA should clean up Superfund sites to how the U.S. Forest Service should manage the nation's woodlands. Federal legislation on such matters often requires some form of public involvement, and agencies sometimes go beyond what the law demands, actively seeking citizens' input and expertise. But enthusiasm for public participation has not been universal. Critics contend that beyond being slow and costly, public involvement actually leads to poorer decisions by including people who may not know much about the science.

Provided it's done well, public participation leads to better environmental decisions, and agencies should view it as valuable to their mission -- not just a formality required by law, concludes a new report from the National Research Council. Public involvement is far more likely to improve the quality of environmental decisions than to undermine it, because citizens often have knowledge about local environmental conditions that is crucial for good scientific analysis. In addition, public values and concerns can help shape the scientific questions asked, to ensure that the science addresses problems that are relevant to people and their environment. And involving citizens gives the resulting decisions more legitimacy in the eyes of those who are affected by them -- which in turn raises the chances that the decisions will be implemented effectively, the report says.

In some cases, efforts to involve the public have made matters worse, the report notes. For example, some participatory processes have been used to divert the public's energy away from criticism and into activities considered safe by an agency -- a dodge that tends to be counterproductive in the long run because it ignores important conflicts.

While there's no magic method for involving the public that works in all situations, some actions can help build trust and encourage good-quality decisions across a variety of contexts. An agency should make clear at the outset how it intends to use the public's input, for example, and should commit enough staff and resources to the effort. To make sure that the science is of high quality, official analyses should be independently reviewed by outside experts who are credible to the parties involved. And the decision-making process should be flexible, allowing citizens, scientists, and officials to reconsider past conclusions as new information comes in.   -- Sara Frueh

Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making. Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2008, 322 pp.; ISBN 0-309-12398-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Thomas Dietz, professor of sociology and of crop and soil sciences, and director, Environmental Science and Policy Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing. The study was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences