Public comments make a difference

By Mary Fisher

“When has a public comment on a federal regulation actually made a significant difference?”

This question consistently arises during workshops, presentations, volunteer trainings, and even from the editor of our article in The Conversation. As an organization whose mission is to encourage scientists and other experts to submit public comments, this question cuts to the heart of The Public Comment Project.

The “success” story that first inspired us at The Public Comment Project involves a comment made by a marine scientist on a rule designating critical habitat for the endangered black abalone. “Critical habitat,” is set aside for special management and protection because it is essential to the conservation and recovery of an endangered or threatened species. In response to this particular public comment, the National Marine Fisheries Service expanded critical habitat for the black abalone to better protect early life stages of the species. (Read more about it here!)

A more far-reaching example is the 2015 proposal to amend federal regulations on research with biospecimens. The many public comments made on the original proposal, and the resulting changes those comments inspired, were summarized by folks at The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum as “successfully” impacting the final regulations.

Public comments have also been used to strengthen regulatory decisions, such as when federal agencies used submitted information and studies to support Endangered Species Act listings of the hyacinth macaw and the Taiwanese humpback dolphin. And there are many minor examples where public comments initiated key clarifications in the language of the regulation. This includes an August 2018 rule on a renewable fuel standards program, and a July 2016 rule on the use of Medicare data.

At the Public Comment Project, we now begin our workshops by highlighting a few of these examples, which is how we kicked off our most recent workshop for the Science Rising effort.

Our workshops engage a wide variety of experts in the public comment process, allowing us to branch out from our more academic roots. Each workshop draws in a new – and equally important – dimension of the public: students, non-academic scientists, community leaders, and concerned citizens. Partnering with Science Rising was especially rewarding in this respect, as we were able to reach a new community of potential public commenters.

With such a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and goals, there is always a new question raised or opinion given. And many of these questions, like the one above, get at the core of the public comment process.

Participants at a workshop learn about the public commenting process.

When should I be investing effort into my own public comment, rather than signing onto a form letter?

Form letters and individualized public comments serve two different goals. Form letters raise several key issues that have been well-researched and carefully summarized by experts, and they help the agency gauge public opinion. If I felt passionately about a regulation but was not an expert on that topic myself, I would sign a form letter. However, any time a regulation involves a certain topic which I have experience in, or affects a community that I am a part of, I would write an individual comment.

When a federal agency reviews public comments, they must consider and respond to “material” comments that are unique and fact-based. By submitting an individual comment, you are providing the agency with completely new information – whether that is evidence based on personal experience, a new study that just came out, or data that you have access to. Not only will the agency have to respond to your comment, they will also have a more complete understanding of the evidence on which they are basing their regulations. This is why we encourage anyone who attends our workshops to begin writing their own public comments – and we discuss ways to do so effectively. If you are looking for guidance on writing an effective public comment, check out the Science Rising resources page.

How can a community leader who is not a scientist contribute through public comment?

Public comment itself is not restricted to scientists.. Public comment is about gathering evidence regarding all facets of a regulation. This evidence includes not only the results of formal research, but also factual information that stems from local knowledge and first-hand experience. In the text of a regulation, agencies will often ask specific stakeholders and communities for feedback – and it’s very rare that these groups are strictly scientists! The Public Comment Project primarily focuses on engaging researchers because we wanted to provide our fellow scientists with the tools to move past “loading dock” science, when scientists produce useful research without engaging or communicating with those who may actually use it (like policy-makers).

How can I encourage friends and colleagues to submit a public comment?

First, help them have their “aha!” moment. This is when you walk through how public comment works, and someone fully grasps the power of the process. It’s my favorite part of any workshop. We like to stress how public comment is a direct pathway for communicating with federal regulators, who are legally required to respond to your comment. Another selling point is that a public comment can be written and submitted any time, from anywhere.

The next step is to organize! Find an upcoming regulation on a topic that you have knowledge in and are passionate about (keep an eye on new opportunities using our website). During our Science Rising workshop, we identified two particularly important regulations that we thought would be interesting to workshop participants: a proposal to list a local butterfly species as endangered, and a request for comments on whether the EPA’s Clean Water Act should cover certain pollutant discharges. By choosing one local and one high impact comment opportunity, both of which could draw on personal experience or scientific knowledge, we encourage broader participation.

We’d like to thank everyone who attended The Public Comment Project’s workshop for Science Rising, and any other previous workshop, for raising these important questions. We hope that you have learned as much from us, as we have learned from you!

Mary Fisher is the project lead for the Public Comment Project, which she co-founded while pursuing her M.S. at the University of Washington. Her motivation to engage scientists and other experts in evidence-based policy-making derives from her own experiences as an early-career researcher in applied fisheries science.