GOP Effort To Make Environmental Science 'Transparent' Worries Scientists

Jul 20, 2017
Originally published on July 20, 2017 4:56 pm

Groups that represent industries from farming to fracking are supporting a legislative push to rewrite how government handles science when drawing up regulations.

And the whole effort has scientists worried.

Consider, for example, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act, which passed the House in the spring and now is with the Senate. Just how "honest" it is depends on whom you ask.

The HONEST Act says the EPA can't take a particular action based on scientific research unless that research is "publicly available online in a manner than is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results."

Trouble is, making all that data widely available in such detail isn't always possible — past studies may not have all this documentation. And it's a huge burden to require that everything from raw data to computer models be made available to outsiders, says Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was a science advisor at the EPA.

"To say that every study needs to have the data out there — this is code for 'We are going challenge it — to raise issues of uncertainty and play the delay game' that was so successfully played, unfortunately, with things like tobacco," says Burke.

When industry delays regulation by nitpicking the science, he says, public health suffers.

The HONEST Act has been endorsed by industry groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the American Chemistry Council. Bruce Thompson, president of the American Exploration & Production Council, which represents oil and gas exploration companies, says his group supports the bill because when it comes to issues like fracking, science at the EPA has previously gotten mixed up with politics.

"Hopefully that is changing," says Thompson. "And I don't say that from the standpoint of, 'They'll politicize it our way.' That's not what we want. We want it to be objective and seen in a proper, transparent, scientific light."

Industries like fracking are important for the economy, Thompson says, so there's a lot at stake here.

The chairman of the House science committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, has described it as a common sense bill that requires the EPA to act on solid, transparent science.

"In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only upon data that is available for every American to see and that can be subjected to independent review. That's called the scientific method," he told his colleagues.

Other legislation being considered by the current Congress, such as the Regulatory Accountability Act, also tries to spell out what kind of science can get used when the government acts.

This legislative effort has the support of groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is concerned about possible restrictions on pesticides.

"More than anything else, we're looking for a process that's open, a process where other scientists can kind of look at the data that EPA uses, and then look to see if that science is repeatable," says Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the federation.

But words like "repeatable" are exactly what worries Sean Gallagher, the senior government relations officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Defining terms, or setting in stone, terms like 'reproducible' or 'independent analysis' may sound good when you read it and it may look simple," says Gallagher, "but they have serious unintended consequences that may manifest down the line."

For example, Gallagher points out that research done in the wake of a catastrophe, like the BP oil spill, wouldn't be repeatable — because no one wants to reproduce an environmental disaster, even if they could. That kind of science could potentially get excluded from decision-making if the HONEST Act became law.

That's why a number of scientific organizations oppose the bill. "For the scientific community," Gallagher says, "this is a very bad bill, and it has serious implications."

President Trump and the Republicans in Congress have made reducing government regulation a top priority, however. That's why Gallagher thinks some kind of legislation like this bill has a real shot at being taken up by the Senate later this summer.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Government officials charged with protecting the environment have to rely on science - but what science? That's a contentious issue at the Environmental Protection Agency. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on recent efforts in Congress that could limit what research studies get used.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: There's a piece of legislation that's passed the House and is now at the Senate. It's the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act. The chair of the House science committee, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, has described it as a common sense bill that requires the EPA to act on solid, transparent science.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR SMITH: In our modern information age, federal regulation should be based only upon data that is available for every American to see and can be subjected to independent review. That's the scientific method.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some think the HONEST Act isn't honest, like Tom Burke. He's a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and was a science adviser at the EPA. He points out that this act says science can only be used if everything - raw data, computer models - everything is available to outsiders.

THOMAS BURKE: To say that every study needs to have the data out there - this is code for, we're going to challenge it to raise issues of uncertainty and play the delay game that was so successfully played unfortunately with things like tobacco.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says when industry delays regulation by nitpicking the science, public health suffers. This pretty much sums up the two points of view on this legislation. It's either totally reasonable or an outrage. The HONEST Act has been endorsed by a slew of industry groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the American Chemistry Council. Bruce Thompson is president of the American Exploration and Production Council. It represents oil and gas exploration companies. Thompson says when it comes to issues like fracking, science at the EPA has in the past gotten mixed up with politics.

BURKE: Hopefully that is changing. And I don't say that from the standpoint of, they'll politicize it our way. That's not what we want. We want it to be objective and seen in a proper, transparent, scientific light.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says industries like fracking are important for the economy. There's a lot at stake here. That's why the HONEST Act is part of a broader legislative push in the current Congress to rewrite how the government uses science and regulations. Don Parrish is with the American Farm Bureau Federation. It's concerned about possible restrictions on pesticides.

DON PARRISH: More than anything else, we're looking for a process that's open, a process where other scientists can kind of look at the data that EPA uses and then look to see if that science is repeatable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Words like repeatable are exactly what worry Sean Gallagher. He works on government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the groups that opposes the HONEST Act.

SEAN GALLAGHER: Defining terms or setting in stone terms like reproduceable or independent analysis may sound good when you read it. And it may look simple, but they have serious unintended consequences that may manifest down the line.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like what about research done in the wake of a catastrophe like the BP oil spill? This science isn't repeatable. No one wants to reproduce an environmental disaster.

GALLAGHER: For the scientific community, this is a very bad bill. And it has serious implications.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: President Trump and the Republicans in Congress have made deregulation a top priority. That's why Gallagher thinks legislation like this has a real shot at getting taken up later this summer. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S, "AWAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.