The House Science Committee and the EPA Fighting Over Data: Is That the Same as Secret Science?

September 5, 2013 | 5:55 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Science Committee seems to be implying that unless the raw data from two major studies are made available to him and his colleagues, that the science used by the EPA in crafting some air quality regulations is secret.  The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS was formed to advance the role of science and scientific evidence in public policy.  So should we be supporting Chairman Smith’s demand, which he has backed up by a subpoena?

from: Clean Air Task Force report on soot and respiratory disease

Scientific evidence is more than raw data

I think not. Scientific evidence comes from a well-established and defined process. It includes the raw data, of course, but is so much more than just that. The process of science also includes the study design, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and peer review. And as part of this process, safeguarding the integrity of that science by revealing conflicts of interest, respecting the rights and privacy of research subjects, and ensuring the results are not manipulated by financial and political interests.

Chairman Smith is only focused on one piece of this process and is ignoring all the others, with no assurances of any kind that they will be respected. He has demanded, following a long line of industry complaints and previous objections to clean air rules, the raw data from two major studies, one conducted by researchers led by the Harvard School of Public Health, the other by the American Cancer Society.

Both studies, of course, had to comply with institutional and granting agency (both public and private in this case for both studies) requirements with regard to ethics, confidentiality, and research standards. As former Dean of Life Sciences and Agriculture at University of New Hampshire and for my own research, I can affirm that those requirements take time and attention, and they are never to be treated lightly. For example, academic institutions must have a review panel to evaluate any research proposal and make sure it complies with standards for the ethical treatment of any people involved in the study. If interviews are conducted or if any other data is collected from study volunteers, their privacy must be respected, including the confidentiality of any data collected from them. Further, institutions and granting agencies require conflict of interest disclosures in most cases, and the proposals undergo extensive, independent peer review as part of the selection process for funding.

Following approval by such research ethics boards, both of the original studies had to pass through independent peer review for journal publication as well as for consideration by the EPA in the course of crafting regulations. Because they concerned a highly controversial topic, the connection between particulates largely from fossil fuel burning (soot) and respiratory diseases including lung cancer, there were multiple layers of re-analysis and review by independent scientists. And it is apparent that these studies are part of a much larger body of scientific literature affirming the connection between soot and mortality.

Let’s not treat peer-reviewed science like a defendant on Court TV

Much of the discussion of the release of the data to the House Committee and the public has centered on confidentiality of the subjects.  But the larger issues are concerning the science process and what appears to be “shopping” for analysts to give a different result more to some interest groups’ liking. If the science process was followed, and a careful review was conducted of the analysis, why is it that the Chairman wants “independent” analysis of more than 20-year-old raw data?  Were not all the other studies in the literature independent? And if another analysis came to a different result, what would that mean? In the process of developing scientific evidence, there certainly are disagreements in methodology and interpretation. That’s all to the good. But my sense here is that Rep. Smith is viewing the scientific study as if in a courtroom, with the Perry Mason moment at hand as a new analysis is dramatically thrown in front of the witness. Good TV (for 40 years ago) but not much to do with scientific integrity.

The EPA has a tough job: implementing the laws that Congress has passed to protect the American public from the impacts of pollution. One of those impacts is clearly, from the scientific evidence, particulate matter or soot from burning fossil fuels. The Agency has made great strides in cleaning up our air, though a lot is still left to do. I am sure they would welcome additional scientific data collection and analysis on health risks from air pollution. Perhaps Congress should focus on funding new studies instead of simply criticizing already robust results they don’t like.