The Science of Bureaucracy: Risk Decision-Making and the US Environmental Protection Agency

The Science of Bureaucracy: Risk Decision-Making and the US Environmental Protection Agency

by David Demortain


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How the US Environmental Protection Agency designed the governance of risk and forged its legitimacy over the course of four decades.

The US Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 to protect the public health and environment, administering and enforcing a range of statutes and programs. Over four decades, the EPA has been a risk bureaucracy, formalizing many of the methods of the scientific governance of risk, from quantitative risk assessment to risk ranking.

Demortain traces the creation of these methods for the governance of risk, the controversies to which they responded, and the controversies that they aroused in turn. He discusses the professional networks in which they were conceived; how they were used; and how they served to legitimize the EPA. Demortain argues that the EPA is structurally embedded in controversy, resulting in constant reevaluation of its credibility and fueling the evolution of the knowledge and technologies it uses to produce decisions and to create a legitimate image of how and why it acts on the environment. He describes the emergence and institutionalization of the risk assessment–risk management framework codified in the National Research Council's Red Book, and its subsequent unraveling as the agency's mission evolved toward environmental justice, ecological restoration, and sustainability, and as controversies over determining risk gained vigor in the 1990s.

Through its rise and fall at the EPA, risk decision-making enshrines the science of a bureaucracy that learns how to make credible decisions and to reform itself, amid constant conflicts about the environment, risk, and its own legitimacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262537940
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 01/21/2020
Series: Inside Technology
Pages: 452
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 9.06(h) x 1.06(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Demortain is a senior social scientist of the French Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), based at Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Sciences Innovations Sociétés (LISIS).

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From the Publisher

Neither captured by polarized politics nor strangled by rule-following, the Environmental Protection Agency emerges in Demortain's nuanced account as a designer of rationality, an institution with a capacity for bringing disparate networks together to render the future less contested and more knowable. A message of hope in a troubled time.

Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

The Science of Bureaucracy presents a masterful and rigorous analysis of how one of the most powerful environmental agencies in the world used the concept of risk to enhance its legitimacy and support more rational decision processes. Anyone wanting to understand the EPA, regulatory science, and modern US environmental politics should read it.

Daniel J. Fiorino, Director, Center for Environmental Policy, American University

Can risk be governed, managed, truly evaluated? Contemporary regulation presumes as much.  In an original, exacting study of EPA practice, David Demortain rewrites modern risk assessment as intertwined scientific endeavor and multidimensional public strategy.  Our existential uncertainty about risk, he shows, renders scientific, professional and popular politics inescapable, and occasionally useful, in regulation.

Daniel Carpenter, Allie S. Freed Professor of Government, Harvard University

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