DOI’s New Policy Restricts Science Under the Guise of Transparency

October 3, 2018 | 3:54 pm
Photo: NCinDC/CC BY-ND 2.0 (Flickr)
Charise Johnson
Former contributor

At the end of September, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order, “Promoting Open Science”, purportedly to increase transparency and public accessibility of the research used by the Department to make science-based decisions. This seems dubious coming from a person who spent much of his career lobbying for the oil and gas industry and who at his confirmation hearing professed, “Here’s the reality: We’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but … policy decisions are made — this president ran and he won on a particular perspective.” The order, effective immediately, is not unlike the EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule, in that it restricts the use of science in important decisions that affects the public and our environment. At its surface, the order seems to make science a hallmark of DOI policy:

This Order is intended to ensure that the Department of the Interior (Department) bases its decisions on the best available science [emphasis mine] and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions. Further, it is intended to ensure that the American people have sufficient information [emphasis mine] about what their Federal Government is doing to assess where it is coming from and correct the Federal Government when we err.

The only problem is that science already is and has been part and parcel of the work of the Department.  So, what has changed?  When you dig deeper it is easy to see this order for what it is:  an attempt to place unnecessary burdens on the use of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda.

To date, this Administration has shown disdain rather than respect for science.  Here at UCS we have been tracking attacks on science and several are at DOI.  Our survey of DOI scientists (at the US Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, as well as the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Enforcement)  reveal deep concerns among the professionals in the agency about the way their political leaders are managing the science program in the department.  The following details from the order are also important to note:

Raw data and reproducibility

Any decision based on scientific conclusions that are not supported by publicly available raw data [emphasis mine], analysis, or methodology, have not been peer reviewed, or are not readily reproducible [emphasis mine] should include an explanation of why such science is the best available information.

Requiring that scientific data be publicly available means that some high-quality data can’t be used in federal government research. Raw data may include confidential information such as private addresses and locations of sacred spaces and cultural resources or even the locations of the last remaining individuals of an endangered species. A colleague said, “it’s like telling poachers where the last rhinos are living,” an astute analogy. Allowing such data to be publicly available could put individuals, species, and culturally or religiously important sites at risk. In some cases, data from older studies may be inaccessible where the authors or data sources may not be available. This would be an issue for reproducibility as well, especially considering that long-term studies and studies determining the natural history of species often rely on data obtained before the advent of modern data storage.

As Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists previously pointed out, raw data is not typically reviewed even in the most rigorous peer-reviews. Instead, the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions are reviewed to assess the quality of the work.

Also cited in the order is an excerpt from the Office of Management and Budget, Guidelines for Ensuring and Maximizing the Quality, Objectivity, Utility, and Integrity of Information Disseminated by Federal Agencies. “If an agency is responsible for disseminating influential scientific, financial, or statistical information, agency guidelines shall include a high degree of transparency about data and methods to facilitate the reproducibility of such information by qualified third parties [emphasis mine].”

In other words, the OMB guidelines already call for the science to be as transparent as is reasonable.  So, is this order calling for it to go beyond the bounds of reason?

Best available science

“The Department issues regulations on a wide swath of activities that have a tremendous impact on the lives of Americans. Accordingly, the Department has an obligation to the American people to ensure that decisions are based on the best available science [emphasis mine]. On March 28, 2018, President Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13783, ‘Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,’ declaring it ‘the policy of the United States’ that environmental regulations ‘are developed through transparent processes that employ the best available peer-reviewed science and economics.’”

No one in DOI political leadership seems to view science as anything more than an inconvenience. Instead it seems they are just industry favorable heads making decisions that sound like they’re in the public’s best interest – but are not. We’ve already seen how the DOI is treating science. In less than two years, the DOI has manipulated, dismissed, and ignored science and scientists; they’ve canceled studies on oil and gas operations, restricted scientists from attending conferences essential for keeping abreast of research and methods in their disciplines, gone against their own communication policy by requiring scientists to get permission to speak to media about their work…and subsequently hid the communication policy deep in the DOI website, buried a report on the effects that climate change and sea-level rise have on coastal communities, and even gone so far as to reassign scientists from their posts without justification. Recently, the DOI proposed a rule that would undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act by prioritizing economic considerations when determining endangered or threatened status for species.

Industry waivers

The requirements of this Order may be waived, in whole or in part, by the Deputy Secretary upon a written determination that a waiver is necessary and the least restrictive means of protecting privacy, confidentiality, including confidential business information and trade secrets [emphasis mine]; national security, and homeland security. With appropriate redactions, all waivers shall be posted on Regulations. gov (or any similar successor site) concurrent with publication of the related rule in the Federal Register.

There are waivers for industry. Of course there are. There is nothing explicitly mentioned about protecting the privacy of individuals, but hopefully this is implied and won’t require extra rigmarole. However, they made sure to be clear that any data revealing industry information and “trade secrets” could be eligible for a waiver by the Deputy Secretary, making it a wholly political decision.  Shouldn’t it be up to the scientists to decide when the scientific information is important in order to advise policy-makers?  Otherwise, policy-makers can just choose the information that supports their political positions.

The DOI’s decisions under this administration leave a trail of crumbs that lead to one thing: short-term economic gains at the expense of wildlife, public lands, and public health. Manipulating the process by which science informs policy only serves to tilt the scales farther in this direction.

Connecting the dots

Restricting the scientific information eligible for use at DOI would leave many agencies and bureaus therein unable to meet their missions and statutory obligations. This proposal could make the conservation of endangered species all the more difficult because of the requirement to reveal location data, landholder information and other information that is best kept confidential in order to protect endangered plants and animals. Additionally, these restrictions would increase burdens on agency scientists that are already encumbered by budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, resulting only in reduced capacity to make science-based decisions.

In his order, Deputy Secretary Bernhardt quoted late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynilian as saying “everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”, adding his own take, “Differences of opinion are inevitable as people of good will pursue different priorities. Differences of facts are not.” On that we can agree – so stop trying to choose what should be seen as fact. Adding unnecessary hoops is not in the best interest of the public, wildlife and lands that DOI is tasked with protecting, it only serves to slow down science-based decision-making processes as a part of the administration’s anti-science agenda. If DOI really wants to keep the public informed, they could start by not pulling studies and deleting information from websites, but by properly funding programs and offices committed to sharing knowledge with communities.