As many conservatives see it, environmental science is an enabler of dreaded government regulation. When enough studies show that there is no safe level of lead in water, then we have to regulate lead pollution. When scientists agree that mercury pollution can effect developmental health, then we have to regulate mercury. And when scientists agree that excessive carbon emissions threaten public health and welfare—well, you get the point.
An obvious solution, for those seeking to avoid such regulation, would be to prevent that science from seeing the light of day. That’s exactly what Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas, is trying to do. On Thursday, the House Science Committee passed two of Smith’s bills: The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act. Combined, they would significantly change how the Environmental Protection Agency uses science to create rules that protect human health.
The HONEST Act is essentially a re-brand of Smith’s notorious Secret Science Reform Act, a bill that would have required the EPA to only use scientific studies for which all data is publicly available and the results are easily reproducible. The SAB Reform Act would change the makeup of the board that reviews the “quality and relevance” of the science that EPA uses: Scientists who receive EPA grants would be forbidden from serving, while allowing the appointment of industry-sponsored experts who have a direct interest in being regulated—so long as they disclose that interest.
In a press release, Smith said these bills would help promote “an open and honest scientific process” at the EPA. He says past regulations have been “based on hidden science” and that the SAB needs “a more balanced group of scientists to assist EPA in fulfilling its core mission.”
But several scientists, science advocates, and former EPA officials told me this week that these bills are a solution in search of a problem. The bills, while couched in good intention, will add significant expense and delay to the scientific process, effectively preventing the EPA from using the best available science to protect the public from pollution. Worse, they said, the bills would embolden polluters and discourage good scientists from working in government.
“I’ve always had a hard time understanding why members of Congress like to tell scientists how to conduct their research,” said Democratic Representative Bill Foster, one of only two scientists in Congress. “Scientists should set the standards for research. Not politicians.”
According to The Intercept, “The small group of lawyers and PR strategists orchestrating the secret science effort are closely tied to those attacking the EPA from within. All have connections to either big tobacco, oil, or both.” And those industries would, of course, benefit financially by killing or delaying regulation. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the ‘Delay Game,’ where clearly it’s in the best interests of certain major stakeholders to delay science so they can in effect delay regulations that may have an impact on their business or industry,” said Thomas Burke, who served as the EPA’s chief science advisor under President Obama. “So one has to be a little skeptical of an intent to a bill like this that might lead to an endless loop of reanalysis of data.”
Burke and others said the HONEST Act would delay or stymie the approval of scientific data at EPA because it requires that the disclosure of private data and that study results be “reproducible,” meaning an outside source must be able to replicate the entire study on their own and get the same results. Scientists say that’s just not possible for many public health studies. Consider a 10-year study of lead exposure in pregnant women and children: How would scientists swiftly replicate the results? Or a study on the BP oil spill’s impact on public health in coastal Gulf communities: How can one reproduce that event?
“It’s really hard to reproduce long term studies because variables change, people grow up,” said Yogin Kothari, a scientific integrity advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If they can’t use these studies, the EPA’s policy decisions won’t be based on the best available science.”
The HONEST Act’s requirement that all raw data be available is also problematic, scientists say, because many public health studies use private medical data, while other studies—like oil well emission research, for instance—can contain trade secrets and industry data. The HONEST Act does say that type of information must be redacted, but then it says that it can be disclosed to anybody who signs a confidentiality agreement. Kothari said that requiring raw data also fundamentally misunderstands how the scientific process works. “You don’t need to see raw data to actually understand a scientific analysis,” he said. “When a peer reviewer at a journal is looking at a study, a paper that they’re reviewing, they don’t ask for the data. They look at the methodologies and how it connects to the research results.”
Besides, Burke said, there is no reason for reviewers to essentially re-do the entire research process when reviewing the validity of a study. That is what the peer-review process is for—a process that has served science well for nearly 300 years. “This bill really does not honor the scientific process that has been the basis for decision-making in the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “It sets up so many potential road blocks. I am very concerned about the public health implications.”
Opponents of the Scientific Advisory Board bill, which bars scientists who have received money from the EPA in the last three years from serving on the board, say it’s insulting to allege that scientists who receive EPA grants are inherently biased in favor environmental regulation. Most scientific research in the U.S. is funded by government grants. Does that mean every scientist is biased toward government regulation?
“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”
There’s no shortage of outrageous bills in Congress that few people take seriously. Republican Representative Matt Gaetz’s bill to abolish the EPA, for instance, caused widespread internet outrage and inspired hundreds of protesters to show up at a town hall Gaetz hosted. But the bill has absolutely no chance of becoming law.
Quite the opposite is true of the HONEST and SAB Reform acts. Both bills passed the GOP-controlled House in 2014 and 2015, back when the HONEST Act was called the Secret Science Reform Act. In 2015, after Democrats lost the Senate, the secret science bill passed the chamber’s Committee on Environment and Public Works. The Obama White House issued veto threats on both bills, both years.
“I would say it’s more real now than ever before because of the current political situation,” said Kothari. “A lot of people paying attention to this always understood that President Obama would veto this legislation. We don’t have that veto promise anymore.”
President Donald Trump has not commented on these bills, but he’s expressed an extreme distrust of science in general, and the EPA specifically. He doesn’t believe in climate change, for instance, and has appointed several climate deniers to cabinet positions. Some of the very people behind these two bills are now serving on Trump’s EPA transition team.
“We now have a president who has attacked mainstream scientific views repeatedly,” Democratic Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson said at Thursday’s House Science Committee hearing. “The threats to the scientific enterprise in America right now are profound.”