A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As…Thorny?

2017-03-13T16:47:09+00:00 March 13, 2017|
A true-color NASA satellite mosaic of Earth. (Credit: NASA)

(Click to enlarge) The HONEST Act (formerly the Secret Science Reform Act) passes out of House committee with EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. (Credit: NASA)

When the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Power Plan in 2015, the agency posted online (as per their norm) hundreds of pages of technical documents, including underlying data, calculations, analyses, and memorandums. Their documentation, such as the Regulatory Impact Analysis, includes review of peer-reviewed literature, and the rule itself (which also used peer-reviewed science to underpin it) received unprecedented input through a number of outreach efforts, including 4.3 million public comments submitted during the six-month public comment period. For an agency so committed to transparency and the use of science for the public good, it should seem surprising that there are efforts by some in Congress to increase this transparency, public participation, and use of good science – but at the expense of allowing EPA to effectively do its job.

The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act of 2017 (H.R. 1430) was approved last week by the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 1431) on a party line vote (17-12 and 19-14, respectively). The former piece of legislation previously passed the House in a similar form as the Secret Science Reform Act and would now require the EPA to use only studies that are publicly available online and reproducible when determining regulatory actions. The intent of the bill sounds good; Chairman Lamar Smith (TX-21) stated, “Since American taxpayers foot the bill for EPA regulations, they deserve to have access to the science that supposedly justifies these regulations.” However, the problem lies in its implementation, which would impact the agency’s ability to do its job. For example, while the bill, unlike previous versions, would redact confidential health information that is used in studies prior to publication, this information could be handed over to anyone who signs a confidentiality agreement that the Secretary deems allowable. This could reduce the willingness of people to participate in these studies. Additionally, while scientists understand the importance of replicability, not every study is reproducible; for instance, those examining a one-time event, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Limiting the agency to only undertaking reproducible studies would reduce the available science. In a letter opposing the bill, the Environmental Defense Fund cites a Congressional Budget Office study of a previous version that found the legislation would drastically reduce the studies the EPA can rely on for their rulemaking by half. This means that the bill would do the opposite of what it claims to and would keep some of the best-available science from being part of the rulemaking process. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), in a strong statement of opposition, also highlighted the difference between those supporting and opposing the bill, calling the “groups that endorse the Majority’s bill…a “who’s who” of toxic chemical manufacturers” and highlighting academic and public health groups who oppose it. Other concerning components of the bill include the stifling of innovation (by making trade secrets available to those who sign a confidentiality agreement) and wasting agency resources and taxpayer dollars (in being forced to redact large datasets before posting them online).

The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would ban EPA grantees from serving on the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board. Chairman Smith stated his support for this change because it would provide transparency and lead to “increased public participation in the EPA science review process.” Ranking Member Johnson again held a different viewpoint, citing concerns about the “unlimited participation by financially conflicted industry representatives,” the difficulty for scientists with extramural research grants to serve, and the burdensome public comment requirements.