Inside the GOP’s Latest Effort to Gut Science at the EPA

Inside the GOP’s Latest Effort to Gut Science at the EPA

 “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?

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Congressman Lamar Smith, right, shown with Senator Ted Cruz, is behind two bills that critics say are designed to stymie scientific research at the EPA. Reuters

“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?”

‘More Real Now Than Ever’

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.”

 
 

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