Two very special bills are scheduled for consideration in the House of Representatives on Tuesday: one is called the Secret Science Reform Act, and the other is called the Science Advisory Board Reform Act. Taken together, these bills would significantly change how the Environmental Protection Agency uses science to craft regulations intended to protect the environment and public health.
If it became law, the “Secret Science” bill would prohibit the EPA from using science that includes private data or data that can’t be easily reproduced. Bill sponsor Lamar Smith (R-TX) says this would stop “hidden and flawed” science from being the basis of EPA regulations, though many scientific organizations have disagreed with the characterization of their data.
“Costly regulations should not be created behind closed doors and out of public view,” Smith said. “This bill works toward a more accountable government that the American people want and deserve.”
The second bill, The Science Advisory Board Reform Act, would change the rules surrounding which scientists are allowed to serve on the Science Advisory Board (SAB), a group that gives scientific advice to the EPA. The SAB reviews the quality of science used to justify EPA regulations, like rules that limit air pollution from power plants. Among other things, the bill sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) would make it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to advise the agency, and would make it more difficult for scientists who have applied for grants from the EPA to join the board.
If the bills sound familiar, that’s because they were both passed by the House last year. In addition to being passed, both bills were strongly criticized by environmentalists and scientists, who said they were based on a misunderstanding of how science works.
With the “Secret Science” bill, for example, approximately 50 scientific societies and universities said the requirements could prohibit many large-scale public health studies because their data “could not realistically be reproduced.” In addition, many studies use private medical data, trade secrets, and industry data that cannot legally be made public.
Republicans in support of the bill assure that the data within the studies can still be used without disclosing personal information or trade secrets. But it wouldn’t be cheap for those studies to meet the bill’s requirements. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the EPA relies on approximately 50,000 scientific studies per year, and that meeting the goals of the House “Secret Science” bill would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per study.
Taking it a step further, many House Democrats criticized the bills as a disingenuous play for “transparency” within the EPA, when all Republicans really want is less EPA regulation.
“It’s a dangerous attack on the power of knowledge,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said on the House floor last November. “Rather than argue with the indisputable facts on air pollution — a losing bet — this bill attempts to discredit the science as secret, when in fact there’s nothing secret about it. The only secret here is the true intent of this bill.”
At least one thing has changed since the bills were considered in 2014. Last year, one of the most controversial portions of the Science Advisory Board bill was the part that says scientists are not allowed to advise the EPA on their own research, as that would count as a conflict of interest.
That section drew considerable outrage from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which noted how bizarre it was that scientists were essentially forbidden from sharing their own expertise. “This [bill] effectively turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head,” the group’s director, Andrew A. Rosenberg, said in a letter to Congress.
In the 2015 version of the bill, that section has been changed. Now under the new version, scientists would be allowed to advise the EPA on their own research, but only if “fully disclosed to the public and the work has been externally peer-reviewed.” The bill does not make clear what constitutes an “external” peer-review, or how scientists would be expected to make that public disclosure.
The passage of both bills last year generated some mild fanfare among the environmentalist and scientist communities, but each were unlikely to become law. The Democrat-controlled Senate did not plan to take up a similar bill, and even if it did, President Obama had already threatened to veto it.
Now, with a Republican-controlled Senate that has so far been willing to consider bills President Obama won’t agree to, advancing the “Secret Science” and Science Advisory Board bills do seem a bit more likely. An aide from the House Science committee, which Smith chairs, said that companion legislation for Smith’s “Secret Science” was introduced in the Senate last week, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).
The man who would ultimately decide whether to consider the bills in the Senate is Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Though Inhofe hasn't spoken publicly about the bills, he is one of the EPA’s most outspoken opponents, telling the Washington Post last year that he would “do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”
Whether Inhofe will prioritize the bills remains to be seen. His office did not return a request for comment.