That said, there’s no guarantee that REINS will happen. Its most recent incarnation, proposed in January 2015, passed in the House and now awaits Senate approval. All past iterations have died at that point, even at times when the Republicans controlled the Senate with a greater majority than they’ll enjoy in 2017. (“[The] proposal must be seen as an exercise in political theater,” wrote Ronald Levin from the Washington School of Law, just last year.)
But the REINS Act will find a champion in Trump. Even though signing it represents a surrender of executive power, he has already promised to do so, and to “work hard to get it passed.”
REINS is far from the only threat to science-based policy-making. There are others, all bearing respectable titles, and all cloaked in principles that scientists themselves fight for.
Take the Secret Science Reform Act, which was passed by the House in February 2015, and was sponsored by Lamar Smith who chairs the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. It would stop the EPA from developing rules unless all the information they used was “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”
That sounds great! For years, scientists have been trumpeting the value of free publications, of openness in methods and results, and of efforts to improve reproducibility. But the Act’s focus on reproducibility could be used to ignore decades-long epidemiological studies that are impractical to duplicate, or on one-off events like oil spills.
The call for openness is also problematic. When the EPA creates public health regulations, for examples, it often relies on studies that use medical records, which are confidential and cannot be legally released. “It’s a catch-22,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy. “You have to release all the data before you put the rule forward, but you can’t release all the data.”
The cumulative effect of these acts would be to “gut the scientific foundation of many of our landmark health and public safety laws, like the Clean Air Act,” says Halpern. “They’re not going after the laws directly but going after how the government can use science to fulfill those laws.”
If all this happens, it will be more than just a war on regulation. It will be a war on expertise itself, on the role of science in informing American society.
That society, incidentally, is generally supportive of regulations. Both Democrat and Republican voters say that the government should play a major role in ensuring safe food and medicine, protecting the environment, and setting workplace standards. Two in three people support the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions, and three in five say that stricter environmental protections are worth the economic costs.