House Science Chairman Lamar Smith's HONEST Act is anything but an honest act. It hamstrings the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. Cartoon by Jesse Springer, Springer Design & Illustration

A Dishonest Proposal: The House Science Committee Resurrects EPA Secret Science Nonsense in the HONEST Act

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | March 7, 2017, 3:50 pm EDT
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UPDATE, March 28, 2017: The House will begin its consideration of the HONEST Act this Wednesday. The bill continues to be a dangerous threat to science at the EPA. The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative echoed this sentiment Monday this week when they released a letter to Chairman Smith expressing concern about the bill and a white paper analyzing the detrimental real world impacts that the bill would have on public health and the environment.

This week, Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith will officially mark up a new (but not really improved) version of his long championed but always nonsensical Secret Science Act. Now rebranded as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act), the bill effectively prevents the EPA from using the weight of scientific evidence to protect public health and the environment.

Specifically, the HONEST Act would require that all raw data, models, code, and other materials from scientific studies be made available to the public before a federal agency could use it. The bill would have sweeping scope over EPA actions, covering “risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.” The bill does have exceptions for personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information, but a redacted version of these materials will still be made public to persons who sign a confidentiality agreement.

This doesn’t make sense. Here are five reasons the HONEST Act is actually a dishonest proposal:

1. It fundamentally misrepresents how science works.

You might not need a refresher on how science works, but it’s clear that the House Science Committee Chairman does. Here’s a quick run-down: In order to be published in a scientific journal, research must pass through peer-review where 2-3 experts familiar with that field will critique the scientific merits of the study. Thus, when a study has passed peer review, we know it has met a standard set by scientists in that field.  Federal agencies like the EPA then use that peer-reviewed science in order to issue science-based rules.

Nowhere in this process does the public or Congress need to see raw data that went into studies in order to trust federal agencies’ ability to assess the weight of scientific evidence on an issue. Scientists conducting the peer review don’t even typically see the raw data of studies. They do not need to. They can look at the methods, design, and results in order to assess the quality of the science. The peer review process—conducted by those with scientific expertise—provides the necessary scrutiny here; the scrutiny of Congress would insert politics into what should be a scientific discussion.

2. It pretends to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Let’s be clear. The decision-making process at the EPA is already exhaustingly transparent. There are thousands of pages of documents and hours of phone calls and meetings of scientific experts discussing technical details of those documents—and the public has full access to these discussions! I know. I’ve listened to hours and hours of meetings and read hundreds of pages of documents. I would never say that a problem at the EPA is a lack of access to the details of agency decision making.

Further, it is important to note that the EPA already painstakingly collects scientific data and other details from the studies that it relies on to make policy decisions. I know because they asked me for it. The EPA’s 2015 decision on a revised ambient ozone standard relied on many studies of ozone pollution and its relationship with health outcomes, including work that I did as a doctoral student at Georgia Tech looking at exposure measurement in ambient air pollutants. Even though I had conducted the study several years earlier as a graduate student, EPA scientists tracked me down and got me to dig through my files and find the original data that supported the figures and conclusions of my study so I could share it with the agency. If that isn’t dedication to scientific integrity in science-based policy, I don’t know what is.

3. It wastes taxpayer dollars and agency resources.

Ironically, the bill is directly at odds with President Trump’s stated desire to create a more efficient government. It adds unnecessary and burdensome redundancy to the process of promoting clean air and clean water. Chairman Smith is adding red tape to the federal government, not reducing it.

The bill allows “any personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information” to be kept nonpublic. Yet, the bill also allows a person who signs a confidentiality agreement—“subject to guidance to be developed by the Administrator”—to access the data if the protected information is redacted.

Do you know how much time and energy redacting government documents takes? There are entire offices in federal agencies devoted to this singular task. Federal agencies rely on a tremendous volume of data that would fall into these categories. Requiring agencies to redact specific details on large datasets would require EPA to have a much larger budget and staff. They could spend thousands of hours redacting documents for one requester. And of course, this bill is being introduced after a leaked version of President Trump’s proposed EPA budget indicated the agency could receive deep cuts.

4. It stifles innovation, which Chairman Smith claims to support

The chairman purports to care about innovation in the private sector. But interestingly, his bill doesn’t include protections for intellectual property, and it makes industry trade secrets available upon request to anyone who signs an agreement. You know who probably won’t like that? Anyone in the private sector.

Such a provision could discourage the private sector and academic researchers alike from providing scientific information to the EPA. Scientists rely on innovation and the originality of their ideas and methods in order to publish original research, secure grants, and keep pushing the edge of scientific knowledge. We need such science to inform federal policy decisions. But if researchers knew that sharing their science with the EPA meant that their intellectual property would be exposed to the world, they might opt out. If the EPA can’t use the best available science because companies and academics won’t provide it, the agency can’t make science-based decisions and it can’t follow its mission to protect public health and the environment.

5. It is a thinly veiled attack on science that Chairman Smith doesn’t like

This bill is just another tactic that Chairman Smith has dreamed up to attack science he doesn’t like and undermine efforts to hold others accountable for misrepresenting science. Add it to my ongoing laundry list:

  • The Science Committee attacked scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for producing policy-relevant climate science, demanding to see their email communications.
  • The Committee targeted the Union of Concerned Scientists for having spoken with state attorneys general about the role of ExxonMobil in selling a product they knew to be harmful due to the risks of climate change.
  • Chairman Smith previously attempted to interfere in the National Science Foundation’s grant process, ridiculing scientists’ work that he thought sounded silly (without, of course, speaking with the researchers themselves).
  • Chairman Smith went after the National Climate Assessment at one point, claiming it “include[d] unscientific characterizations.”
  • The House Science Committee’s social media routinely spreads misinformation on climate science.

In conclusion, this is anything but an honest act by Chairman Smith. It would compromise the ability of EPA to protect our air and water. Please encourage your members of Congress to oppose this dangerous bill.

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  • Doufas Gowk

    Make no misteak about it. Global warming is a Hoax invented by crooked scienous to get money off the government.
    My granddaddy and his granddaddy grew tobacco in North Carolina. No one ever got sick for smoking. Many even enjoyed their life more by smoking to relax and becoming sophisticated. All that lies about tobacco was a plot by Al Gore’s father Al Gore Sr and other lying government crooks like the sturgen general to steel his land. But he outsmarted them, and they didn’t get it.

  • Jade

    I agree the law is misguided, but we should use its proposal to springboard us into a discussion of WHY this law would be considered to begin with, starting from the principle of charity and assuming the congress-man’s best possible intentions.

    The issue is the EPA , its fellow agencies and scientists:

    1) POTENTIALLY cherry-picking the data, P-hacking and other known issues that the peer review process tends to weed out. The congressman clearly does not understand the concept of peer review, but another known issue is how few studies and experiments on which we base policy are REPLICATED in a timely manner. Peer review is only an assessment of the methodology and conclusions by a fellow scientist, whereas replication is actual VERIFICATION of the results by an independent entity, preferably double blinded, if possible. And for some reason we can wait YEARS before another scientist takes up that task.

    2) Meting out policy to an uneducated public, PARTICULARLY from government agencies. The obvious solution to this issue is to begin release of a government sponsored journal that offers free public access to ALL studies that are being considered in policy adoption. Raw data IS largely useless, and giving public ONLY access to the data is a misguided attempt to inform. But if you give them the whole study w/out a paywall, from abstract to conclusions, it would go a long way. It really just comes down to “Show Your Work,” a principle that even lay-persons remember from their high school course work; one that ought to count DOUBLE for Science, Politics and Law

    Yes, the congress-man’s proposal is nonsensical, but it should be used as a starting point to address the known flaws, and to work with congress to educate them, and encourage them not to simply apply a bandaid to the problem, but to root down deeper and apply real and significant change to how government agencies use the scientific institutions they are afforded, and how they work with and educate the public on science-backed policy


  • Bobby Fontaine

    as far as your link to the ozone article, I saw how Obama backed off lowering ozone precursor levels in order to save hundreds of thousands of American lives when he was informed ethanol added to gasoline needed to end in order to meet the new standards, which was only because he feared losing the corn farmer vote, yet not a word from you people

    • Doufas Gowk

      It is impearative to protect middle west American corn framers from faux sciences, which is all around us trying to take away our high quality paying jobs. This effort comes from Putin, who wants to destory us at any cost, and Putin is backed by Obama who is a secret Muslim infiltrater, irregardless of what the Democrats want us to balieve.

  • Bobby Fontaine

    Union of Concerned Scientists complaints about HONEST focus solely on cost and time, also a bit of a chip on the shoulder that anyone wold question your expertise,, in real science, you would welcome the oversight because you would know the outcome, lots of wasted effort by your detractors that will result in egg all over their face, so why the overt objections, certainly we have right to it, if we want to waste out time making fools of ourselves, just keeping reminding yourselves how we’re not as intelligent as you, so of course these things happen,, this is while the only smart move for you is to welcome these lofty interludes into your secretive world so future generations can enjoy the benefit of learning what a huge mistake it was, but only after you’ve published this article so you can later say “I told you so”

  • NiceMarmot

    I’m a supporter of science. I contribute to environmental defense organizations, I get my kids into the woods and teach them to love and feel a responsibility toward nature. I believe in our EPA.

    These posts are great as I debate friends who sadly are on the other side, and just don’t get it.

    However, I need to know more about how the EPA needs to be fixed. How much bureaucratic waste is there? How can the organization be improved?

    I don’t ask this to attack, but to the contrary, to find out how we as believers in science and in the need for science to prevail in the current political climate, how we can defend the EPA and make it better.
    If we can admit the flaws, we can discuss honestly with our opponents from a position of strength that aknowledges the faults while emphasizing the overall good the agency provides.

    Is there a place where this conversation is happening?

  • infinite wisdom

    I guess I have to ask the question, “If the EPA tracked you down for your data, why are you opposed to data being available to the public that will be used to generate a policy directive?”

    And are you saying the bill has no protections for intellectual property? That competitors can sweep in willy-nilly and steal intellectual property? That doesn’t seem right. Wait, there are protections! Ooops.

    So the real basic fundamental is this, if a policy decision is made by the EPA, like their “We own every bit of water, or potential water route or source, in the US”, why shouldn’t their data be available to the public?

    Face it. The EPA has gone rogue. Since it labeled CO2 as a pollutant for the purpose of govt. being able to micromanage every aspect of daily life (Got a permit for that weekend barbecue? Not there yet, but they are working on it.) the EPA has pushed for ever expanding regulations that cripple the US and place us at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

    • Autzen Hallock

      You do realise that carbon dioxide is poisonous to humans, right?

      • infinite wisdom

        LOL!! Carbon monoxide is poisonous! Carbon dioxide is natural and is only dangerous when there is too much CO2 and not enough O.

    • Mike Patterson

      … for the purpose of govt. being able to micromanage every aspect of daily life… Do you even consider that maybe the EPA’s actions are trying to protect the environment for future generations?

      • infinite wisdom

        Of course. Then when they redefine “navigable waterways”, label CO2 as a pollutant so they can open the door for a cost/penalty based way of limiting it, and then clam up and insulate itself from the waterway disaster caused by their ineptness and less than responsible actions, I begin to wonder what is it exactly they are doing. Don’t you? Have you read about some of the suits and penalties the EPA has thrown at Americans? Or are you still buying the line that if they are from the govt., and they are here to help you?