“They’re trying to put a positive spin on it, and for obvious reasons: You’re not going to put on a piece of paper that you’re not interested in pursuing sound science,” says Gina McCarthy, the outgoing EPA administrator. “They’re really designed to prevent us from getting the information we need to protect public health.”
It’s not clear whether the bills are meant to disempower the EPA, but it is notable that they represent a politically safe way of doing so. The agency not only protects the environment; it also protects people from the environment by enforcing longstanding laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. And such protections are popular with Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. “It would be unpopular to attack these laws directly, but you can go after the way the EPA administers those laws,” says Yogin Kothari from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The result of each bill will be the same—worse science at EPA and less public health protections for American citizens,” says Eddie Bernice Johnson, ranking Democrat member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “If these bills become law, the ultimate result will be more sick Americans and more dead Americans.”
The HONEST Act, which stands for “Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment,” is the bill formerly known as The Secret Science Reform Act. It made a couple of earlier runs through Congress, before appearing again last Wednesday with a flamboyant new acronym.
Why would one want to vote against an HONEST Act? That beguiling air continues in the text, which would prevent the EPA from developing rules unless all the information it used was “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” That means that the agency can only rely on studies whose methods, materials, software code, and data are open and accessible.
As I wrote last year, this language echoes discussions within the science community itself, about the value of freely available publications, the importance of improving reproducibility, and a move towards open data. “There’s a lot of sloppy science that’s out there—irreproducible science,” said a House Science Committee aide, who did not want to be named. “If the scientific data is public, and other scientists are able to look at it, we think that would make the underlying science of these rules less contentious, and lead to stronger public health protections.”
In the past, critics have argued that these rules would bar many kinds of important scientific evidence from consideration. For example, it would would stop the EPA from crafting public health protections based on studies that use medical records, which are confidential and cannot be legally released. The HONEST Act tries to circumvent this objection by saying that personally identifiable information, trade secrets, and confidential information “shall be redacted prior to public availability.” But that language “is window dressing,” says Kothari, “and it can’t work in practice.” First, the EPA Administrator keeps the right to un-redact the redactions. Second, redacting the data from large studies “isn’t just blocking out a line,” says Kothari. It’s a huge job that can occupy entire offices for thousands of hours.