Keeping Up With Scientific Integrity: October–December 2019

January 31, 2020 | 4:46 pm
Catherine Xu/UCS
Liz Borkowski
Science Network Contributor

This post is part of a series of quarterly roundups on scientific integrity.

Scientific Integrity Act advances with bipartisan support: The Scientific Integrity Act, which would require federal agencies that conduct or fund science to develop strong scientific integrity policies, passed out of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with votes from 19 Democrats and six Republicans. This bipartisan support came after an amendment from Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma), negotiated with bill author Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), removed a provision specifying that agency scientists be able to communicate with members of the media without first seeking agency approval. The bill now has more than 230 cosponsors, including three Republicans: Rep. Jim Baird of Indiana, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington. Representatives’ work across the aisle results not only from individual members’ willingness to set differences aside in order to address this crucial issue, but to tireless work by advocates from a broad range of issue areas.

Looking ahead: Advocates are educating Representatives from both parties on the importance of the bill ahead of a House vote.

Agencies cut off valuable sources of science advice: Committees that provided agencies with expert insights on a wide range of issues have been disbanded, as instructed by an executive order requiring agencies to slash the number of federal advisory committees by one-third. Some committees are established by statute, so early cuts are to committees where agencies have more flexibility, even if the agencies need the committees’ advice. Disbanded committees include those addressing breast and cervical cancer detection, environmental health, invasive species, marine protected areas, environmental policy and technology, and smart grid innovation. A letter from 77 organizations—including universities, scientific societies, public health experts, civil rights advocates, unions, farmers’ organizations, and groups focused on ethics and transparency in government—urges President Trump to rescind the order. “The justification for this order is to reduce costs to the government, but advisory committees provide substantial value to agencies for costs far below those of hiring additional staff or contractors to perform the duties they fulfill,” the groups’ letter points out. “It will undoubtedly result in a net loss of independent expert capacity and institutional knowledge and leave important work unfinished or underdeveloped.” Members of Congress had also expressed concern prior to the order’s September 30 deadline for agencies to decide which committees to cut.

Looking ahead: Members of Congress and advocates are tracking the toll of the executive order and exploring opportunities to safeguard advisory committees.

Outlook worsens for science-based regulation of air pollution: Under the Clean Air Act, EPA must revisit the science behind its ambient pollutant standards every five years, after receiving recommendations from its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). In creating their reports for EPA, CASAC has typically relied on additional panels whose members have specialized expertise. However, EPA disbanded its particulate matter expert panel before they could provide input to CASAC. After EPA refused CASAC’s request to re-instate the panel, the panel members convened on their own (in a public meeting) to ensure that CASAC would have the benefit of their expertise. The 20 independent experts recommended that limits on particulate pollution be lowered based on recent research demonstrating health harms under current standards. After receiving these consensus recommendations from the independent panel, however, CASAC could not reach its own consensus on whether current standards are adequate and what the limits should be. Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that this kind of impasse is unprecedented, though not surprising given that “the Trump Administration has been undercutting the EPA’s process for developing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) since it took office.”

Looking ahead: The decision on particulate matter standards will soon rest with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who has access to all the materials that summarize the science.

Strong opposition as EPA worsens a restrictive rule on science used for regulating: In 2018, EPA released a proposed rule that would sharply restrict the studies it could consider when crafting regulations, under the guise of increasing transparency. If the rule is finalized, the agency will only consider studies whose raw data have been made public, despite the fact that ethical research typically requires guaranteeing study participants that data will remain confidential. Nearly 600,000 comments—the vast majority opposing the rule—poured in. Rather than using that feedback to improve the rule (or, as many commenters urged, withdraw it altogether), EPA seems to have made it worse. The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman obtained a draft of supplemental “clarifications” to the rule and reported that they broaden the rule’s scope by applying its inappropriate requirements retroactively, as well as to future rules. At a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, EPA witness Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta told lawmakers that the rule would not apply retroactively—although several Committee members pointed out that EPA would likely still apply the restrictions to existing rules when they came up for re-review, effectively making the rule retroactive. Non-governmental witnesses were universal in their opposition to the proposal. Witnesses emphasized the damage the rule would do to agency use of science and public health, and presented a letter from more than 60 public health, medical, academic, and scientific groups strongly opposing “EPA’s efforts to restrict the use of the best available science in its policymaking.” Editors from top scientific journals published a letter expressing alarm about the rule, and pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who played in a key role in uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, warned in a Washington Post op-ed of the costs to the public’s health. EPA’s Science Advisory Board, whose membership is dominated by Trump administration appointees, had harsh criticism for the rule, including that it’s “inconsistent with the scientific method that requires all credible data be used.”

Looking ahead: The revised rule is now under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which means that it is nearing publication in the Federal Register. Advocates are requesting meetings with OMB to ensure their concerns are on the record, and will have 30 days to comment once the revised rule is published.


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