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 June 2007
Plain Talk for a New Generation

Bias

ONE OF MY EARLIEST MENTORS HELPED ME UNDERSTAND THE PHENOMENON KNOWN AS BIAS. Bias, he said, always shows up at the table. No need to fight it, he said. Bias adds virility and fire to debate. It stirs things up, gets things moving. Energizes people. Over the years, I have come to know it well.

Take, for example, the 22nd annual report on barriers to trade and investment in the United States released by the European Commission. The report details the obstacles that EU exporters and investors face in the U.S. market. As in past reports, the EC assails what it considers to be the non-internationality of U.S. standards:

The claim that proper U.S. standards are “international” standards just because they are de facto widely used outside the U.S. does not stand up to closer scrutiny. International participation through the relevant committees of the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) is needed for their development and agreement.

What this means is that a U.S.-developed standard — superior in technology, quality and relevance to any in its field (and maybe the only in its field), developed by an international consensus, according to accepted international principles, and used internationally — isn’t international because it isn’t passed through ISO. This, then, makes it an obstacle to trade.

Let’s take a look at why the EC statement is steeped in bias. First, it’s illogical. How can standards “widely used outside the U.S.” be obstacles to trade? By definition, widely used standards facilitate trade.

Second, in spite of the EC’s enthusiasm for specifying organizations, the World Trade Organization Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (of which the European Union is a signatory) does not choose international standards developing organizations for its members. Instead, it points to principles by which international standards should be developed.

Third, governments around the world that use ASTM International standards as the basis for regulations do not require that they go through the ISO process to be international standards, i.e., to be in compliance with the TBT.

Finally, global enterprises use ASTM International standards for two basic reasons: for quality products and — most pointedly — access to multiple markets.

Can bias serve a purpose? Yes. It motivates us. For example, we examined the WTO/TBT principles for developing international standards and aligned ASTM International’s practices even closer to them than they already were. Our memorandum of understanding program, in which we provide technical assistance to developing countries, was the result.

The claim that ASTM standards weren’t accepted as international standards by WTO members excited our curiosity. Were they using them as the basis for regulations? We gathered information from many databases, including the U.S./WTO Enquiry Point maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Right now, we know that 3,500 ASTM standards are used in 75 countries and we’re still counting.

There isn’t much we can do about the bias out there, except use it. It adds virility and fire to debate. It stirs things up, gets things moving. Energizes people. //