US bill restricts use of science in environmental policymaking | New Scientist
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a future in which its hands will be tied on making many policies if a new bill becomes law.
Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill, the HONEST Act, that would prevent the EPA from basing any of its regulations on science that is not publicly accessible – not just journal articles themselves, but all of the underlying data, models and computer code.
“The HONEST Act requires EPA to base new regulations on sound science that is publicly available, and not hidden from the American people,” said Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chair of the House science committee, who sponsored the bill, in a statement. “The days of ‘trust me’ science are over.”
“Allowing EPA’s data to be independently reviewed promotes sound science that will restore confidence in the EPA decision-making process,” said Smith.
While this may sound like a laudable move towards increased transparency, it would actually hobble the agency’s ability to develop good, science-based public health regulations, says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
“It’s couched in terms of transparency, but is actually one of several actions intended to bring regulations to a halt,” he says.
While the EPA does make background data available when possible, there are situations where it is impractical or impossible to release that information. Many epidemiological studies must remain confidential because of their use of human subjects, and computer models and code are often protected by intellectual property rules.
The bill allows such data to be kept secret, but would also allow anyone who had signed a confidentiality agreement to access that data if protected information, such as subjects’ names, is redacted. Rosenberg says the amount of time and effort it would take to redact the information would be unnecessarily burdensome.
Also, for research on humans it’s often not that difficult to reidentify people even after data has been anonymised. And in most cases, the EPA does not own the data, so it’s not theirs to give out. Many researchers and companies would likely refuse to hand it over if asked, so it becomes impossible for the EPA to use this data.
In any case, the current system of peer-reviewed research should be sufficient to ensure that the agency is using sound science in its regulations, says Rosenberg.
“I review around 30 studies a year for academic journals, and I never review the raw data,” he says. “That doesn’t tell you whether the study was well-conducted. What tells you that is the methodology, how it was applied, the sampling scheme – the things that reviewers look at on a regular basis.”
The bill is the latest move in Smith’s long-running feud with the EPA. He previously sponsored a similar bill, the Secret Science Reform Act, which made many of the same demands.
That fizzled out after President Obama threatened to veto it, but Rosenberg fears that with the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, and with President Trump in the White House, there is now a danger that the HONEST Act could become law.