By Emily Harris
Sound, peer-reviewed science has been a part of decision and policy making in government for decades. Environmental protection and public health issues on the local, state, and federal level all need the input of scientists who spend their time studying the very issues that are being regulated, but those same individuals may have a harder time offering their expertise to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if Congress has anything to say about it.
The EPA Secret Science Reform Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act are not new ideas, and they both passed a vote in the House last year. With a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, they might gain more traction and support than ever despite the Obama administration’s statements of opposition.
The Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 is intended to prevent the EPA from basing regulations on scientific data that is “not transparent or reproducible” according to the text of H.R. 4012. Transparency sounds like a good thing and it is, but in this case such a change could increase the cost and time spent trying to implement EPA regulations.
In an article on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, Puneet Kollipara pointed out that confidential health information would no longer be viable forEPA. While the studies themselves may not be confidential, the raw data often is. The bill does not require the release of any confidential information, but the EPA is forced to decide what qualifies as confidential in order to pass their regulations. Kollipara said lawsuits would likely follow and the implementation of regulations based on these studies would slow to a halt with time-consuming legal battles.
In addition to health issues, a statement of administration policy published on Nov. 17 pointed out that this reform could slow the cleanup of contaminated sites.
Kollipara presented more arguments against the bill in an article for the Washington Post published on Jan. 8. Despite claims that eliminating “secret science” would cost less, the Congressional Budget Office found evidence to the contrary. Obtaining raw data for each of the studies used by the EPA would carry a price tag between $10,000 and $30,000 per study. Not to mention the number of studies available for the EPA’s use could be cut in half.
In an editorial for RollCall, Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Andrew Rosenberg said, “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.”
The fight against “secret science” does not reveal a need for more transparency but instead disregards the peer review process and how scientific studies work.
The primary purpose of the Science Advisory Board (SAB) is not to influence policy but to “review the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA or proposed as the basis for Agency regulations,” according to the EPA’s website. If the SAB Reform Act is brought up again, two major changes to the current setup could be proposed. First, industry representatives would be allowed to become members of the board if all of their potential conflicts of interest were revealed prior. Second, scientists would not be permitted to offer expert testimony on their own studies.
The presumption appears to be that scientists would somehow have a conflict of interest when offering testimony concerning their own work, but if representatives of industry are granted membership despite their conflicts of interest this establishes a significant double standard. Not that giving expert testimony about your own study is a conflict of interest in the first place, because who else would know more about it?
Neither of these bills had been re-introduced this session as of January when Kollipara wrote his Washington Post article, so it is unclear how they will fare moving forward. The president’s veto of Keystone XL shows clear support for environmental protection, but those sentiments are not necessarily shared by members of Congress. Any initiative to make the EPA less efficient and limit the access to expert testimony is a step backwards. Despite arguments that these bills would increase opportunity for industry and public input to balance things out, the higher cost and the even longer wait to implement regulations would be anything but balanced.