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

March 7, 2017 | 3:50 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

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.