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 re-analysis 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?