Congress Must Block These Attacks on Independent Science | Commentary

House leaders have decided that one of the most important things they can do during the lame duck session is to vote on two bills that would cripple good, science-based policy.

The bills’ backers are pitching the legislation as an effort to create transparency at the Environmental Protection Agency. But the science the EPA and other agencies base their rules on is already an open book. These bills are about trying to stop the EPA from doing its job.

Ultimately, these two bills would set unreachable goals and create unnecessary bureaucratic hoops for the agency to jump through, leading to costly delays in agency rule making. Together, they would prevent the EPA from enforcing environmental laws and protecting America’s public health. If members care about the air we breathe, the water we drink, and scientifically-informed public policy, they should oppose these misguided bills.

Sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., HR 4012 — the so-called “Secret Science” Reform Act — would create a Catch-22 for the EPA.

Today, anyone with an Internet connection, including members of Congress, can already look up which studies the agency relies on for crafting new rules. But in many cases it cannot legally publish raw data. This bill would require the agency to make all data public before creating new rules while blocking the agency from disclosing private medical data, trade secrets and industry data.

The result? The EPA would not be able to adopt any new rules to protect public health.

Under HR 4012, some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public. Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.

What matters is not raw data but the studies based on these data, which have gone through the scientific process, including rigorous peer review, safeguards to protect the privacy of study participants, and careful review to make sure there’s no manipulation for political or financial gain. As many politicians have taken pains to point out, they are not scientists, so they should listen to scientific advice instead of making spurious demands for unanalyzed data.

HR 1422, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, sponsored by vocal EPA adversary Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, would similarly erect pointless roadblocks for the agency. The Science Advisory Board, composed of some of our nation’s best independent scientists, exists not to advocate any particular policy, but to evaluate whether the best science was used in agency decisions.

This bill would make it easier for experts with ties to corporations affected by new rules to serve on the SAB while excluding independent scientists from talking about their own research. In other words, academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.

Science advisory boards are very careful about disclosing potential conflicts of interest. The National Academy of Sciences has common sense rules for how to deal with academic scientists advocating for their own research. This bill turns that concept on its head, making a mockery of how science advice to the government is supposed to work.

Stewart’s bill would also drown the SAB in paperwork by making it difficult to set a deadline on public comments on its work. The Agency already solicits and responds to multiple rounds of public comments. Why should the SAB be wrapped in an endless cycle of additional public comment on scientific advice?

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that HR 1422 would cost the agency $2 million over the next four years. That’s not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

We all want rules to be based on the best-available science. The good news: they already are. If Congress has better ideas for dealing with problems like air pollution or climate change, they should debate those rather than attempting to nullify the EPA by undermining the science advisory process. It is unconscionable.

These bills won’t promote good science or public health — because that’s not what they’re designed to do. The goal of these bills is what some politicians openly say is their top priority: crippling the EPA.

At the end of the day, Congress can promote the public interest and the cause of good science: reject these bills.

Dr. Andrew A. Rosenberg directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is a professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire and a lead author of the National Climate Assessment.