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The House just passed two bills that would stifle science at the EPA

Republicans are using the language of science reformers to obstruct the EPA.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

House Republicans just passed two bills that will make it harder for the Environmental Protection Agency to use scientific research to protect health and the environment. And they’ve done so under the deceptive guise of “transparency.”

Over the past two days, the House has passed the “HONEST Act” and the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act.” On the surface, they seem noble. They use the same language scientists use when advocating for stronger research practices.

But they’re “wolf in sheep’s clothing types of statutes,” says Sarah Lamdan, a law professor who studies environmental information access at CUNY. “What’s really happening is that they’re preventing the EPA from doing its job.”

First, the “HONEST Act”

The HONEST Act is this year’s version of a piece of legislation formerly called the “Secret Science Reform Act.” Its sponsor is Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — the same Congress member who, by the way, said that President Donald Trump “might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

The HONEST Act stipulates that the EPA can’t make any assessment or analysis based on science that not openly accessible to the public. Specifically, the text states the EPA can’t cite research that isn’t:

publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results, except that any personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential, shall be redacted prior to public availability.

Sounds reasonable, right? If passed by the Senate, it would mean the EPA would have to make all the data it uses in its decision-making freely available online so that public and independent researchers could more easily scrutinize its decisions. For sensitive health data, the bill has provision that would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to redact.

On the face of it, the bill is in line with what a lot of researchers argue for: open access not just for journal papers but for data too. The big idea is that this will make science more transparent and replicable, and decrease the friction for one lab to evaluate the work of another. (Psychology and a number of other fields have been dealing with an ongoing “crisis” in which they’re finding past research doesn’t replicate. Open access is a way to rectify it.)

But that’s the ideal world. In our real world, tons of high-caliber science is still locked behind journal paywalls. And so the “radical transparency” Smith is arguing for would perversely have the immediate effect of limiting the number of studies the EPA can cite in its decision-making.

There are two big reasons why.

1) The “HONEST” Act increases the costs of compiling research.

The EPA conducts much of its own research, and collects its own data. And under this law, it would have to make that data publicly available (the agency already does this with much of its data). Under the bill, the EPA would have to get the underlying data it cites from any other scientific research institution.

“It is not clear how EPA would meet the bill’s requirements,” the Congressional Budget Office wrote about last year’s version of the law, which is nearly identical, save for the new provision on redacting sensitive information.

And the EPA would have to pay for it from its own budget -— which seems likely to shrink. The CBO estimated the bill would cost the EPA around $250 million a year — due to the cost of ensuring that the nearly 50,000 scientific studies the agency cites annually all have publicly accessible data. But the current legislation only outlines $1 million for compliance.

To save costs, the CBO suggested, the EPA “could instead rely on significantly fewer studies each year in support of its mission.” Plainly: To save on these costs, the EPA could just cite less scientific research in its actions. That’s a clear roadblock to making decisions on the totality of evidence on an important question.

And it’s especially not helpful considering that President Trump is seeking to cut the EPA budget by 31 percent.

The new provision to redact personal information from studies will likely add to the cost of the current bill (which the CBO has not yet scored). A study on asthma, for example, could have data on 10,000 people. Redacting that information “is a huge job that can occupy entire offices for thousands of hours,” Ed Yong writes at the Atlantic.

2) The bill’s definition of “replicable research” is very dubious.

The stated intent of the law is “to prohibit [EPA] from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

That last bit — “reproducible” — may also cause problems.

Scientists endlessly debate what makes for a good reproduction of a result. A huge point of contention: Does a study have to use the exact same methods, or can a “conceptual” reproduction that tests the same question with a different approach suffice?

Science has not found a clear answer, and to leave that term undefined in the text of the law is an opening for courts to weigh in on the question. If a court took the word “reproduce” literally, that too would limit the data the EPA can use.

“Cancer studies that took 30 years to compile evidence for, studies from natural disasters and chemical explosions — we can’t reproduce those events,” Lamdan says. “The way we regulate against our exposure to radioactive waste is we look at studies from Nagasaki and Hiroshima — clearly we’re not going to reproduce those.”

The EPA also collects data from one-time situations like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When the next oil spill happens, what information should the EPA rely on then? “We’re concerned that in these situations the EPA could be constrained from using important or relevant research in making decisions,” Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs at the American Geophysical Union, wrote in a letter to Congress.

The second bill passed by the House: the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act

This second piece of legislation, at first glance, also seems to be about increasing transparency and reducing conflicts of interests.

Specifically, it would change who is eligible to sit on the 48-person committee that provides outside advice and analysis to the EPA administrator. Namely: It prohibits anyone who has an ongoing research grant from the EPA to serve on the board, and prohibits board member from applying for grants for three years after they step down from the panel.

The stated intent of the bill is to make sure the panel isn’t weighing in on grants or decisions that impact their own research.

What would actually happen: “The bill would exclude some scientists with substantial expertise in their fields from the Science Advisory Board (SAB), [and] the SAB would suffer from the exclusion of valuable insight,” the AGU’s Shultz writes.

Think about it: Why would environmental science experts join the panel if they knew it would potentially mean losing out on funding three years after they quit the panel? (And panelists currently have to recuse themselves from weighing in on their own research anyway.)

Currently, the panel is mostly made up of scientists who work at universities. The law could have the impact of disincentivizing academic scientists from joining the panel, and encouraging those who work in industry.

Expect more science-skeptical legislation from this Congress

Both of these bills passed through Smith’s House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a committee that is, ahem, not exactly on good terms with the scientific community. Perhaps emboldened by President Trump, Lamar has lately been unleashing his disdain for scientists, the scientific method, and science publications.

"All too often, scientists ignore the basic tenets of science," he said at a House hearing on the scientific method Wednesday. Science Magazine, which is produced by the leading journal Science, he went on to assert, is not known as an objective ... magazine.”

Smith says these bills are about transparency. And that’s a great aim. But all signs point to the idea that this bill is just a Trojan horse, a means to clog the pipeline of EPA action.

We’ll have to see if either piece of legislation will see the light of day in the Senate.

But there’s a theme running through the Republican-led government: an outright dismissal of the need for published science and scientific expertise at the nation’s decision-making tables.

You see that reflected in Trump’s budget, which guts research programs at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere. You see it reflected in his staffing decisions: He has yet to appoint a White House science adviser, and the New York Times reports that staff members of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — the people who advise the president on science policy matters — have stepped down, and it’s unclear if Trump intends to replace them.

And it’s particularly bold for the Republican-led Congress to use terms that scientists love — like transparency and replicability — in the name of actions that will limit science’s power in the federal government.