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Does the EPA have a transparency problem?

| Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The inside of a laboratory and the inside of a congressional hearing may sound like two separate worlds. But four bills proposed in the last three years are trying to collide the two, as Congress becomes increasingly concerned with climate science and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These bills are purportedly designed to increase scientific transparency at the EPA – but does that science have a transparency problem to begin with?

According to the congressmen supporting these bills, the answer is, unequivocally, yes. Representative Lamar Smith, who proposed the HONEST Act earlier this month, said in a press release that “the days of ‘trust me’ science’ are over,” and that “increased transparency, fairness, and balance in the EPA’s [Science Advisory Board] is long overdue.”

Lamar is chairman of the House Science Committee, and responsible for calling the “Make science great again” congressional hearing in February. His vice chairman, Frank Lucas, also supports the crusade for transparency; he proposed the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, the sister-bill of HONEST. In it, Lucas argues that the EPA’s science advisory board (SAB) has become corrupt. “Unfortunately, limited public participation, the EPA interference with expert advice, and conflicts of interest threaten to undermine the SAB’s independence and credibility. … The safeguards provided in this bill will restore the SAB as an important defender of scientific integrity and promote more credible and balanced policy outcomes from the EPA.”

But what Lucas calls safeguards, scientists call handcuffs. The HONEST Act stipulates that the EPA cannot create regulations based on scientific data unless that data meets three criteria: it has to be “the best available science,” “specifically identified” and “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

Setting aside the “best science” stipulation, which rings as absurdly subjective, the problem lies primarily with the third requirement. Making scientific data freely available to the public seems like a great idea, which many scientists support – a fact evident in the recent push for open-access journals. But climate change science is a different game. It often uses personal information, like zip codes or medical records, which would have to be redacted before being published online. To the EPA, this would be a bureaucratic nightmare; such large redactions would take an incredible amount of time and cost an estimated $250 million a year. This is money the EPA simply does not have, especially as it faces a proposed 30 percent budget cut from President Trump. The legislation would effectively paralyze the Agency.

Meanwhile, the EPA SAB Reform Act addresses who can serve on the EPA’s science advisory board. It stipulates that any scientist on the board cannot possess a current the EPA grant, or apply for one in the next three years. It’s coined as a way to reduce scientific bias – but it would make a huge number of academics unable to provide their expertise. Their spots would have to be taken by people from industry or government, which in some cases have an even greater bias in protecting their industry or constituency. This type of bias is not addressed in the Act; members of the oil and gas industry, for example, may advise the EPA to their heart’s content. Smith himself, proposer of the HONEST Act, gets his largest campaign donations form the oil and gas industry.

To summarize: the HONEST Act would cripple the EPA’s ability to create new regulations, and the EPA Reform Act would prevent it from consulting leading scientists on those regulations. And are these Acts even necessary? To return to the original question – does the EPA have a transparency problem?

The EPA bases its regulations off of science, and science itself is inherently transparent. In order to get ahead as a scientist, your work must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This means experts in that field must look at the work and determine it is legitimate and valuable. In order to really get ahead, that work must be cited by other papers from other scientists, requiring even more people to read it and believe it to be useful. If a scientific study is not transparent enough to be read and accepted by other experts in the field, it will never be published, and never even reach the EPA.

The House seems to think that this scientific seal approval is not enough. Their demands for freely-available data strike most scientists as ridiculous – what would congressmen do with raw scientific data, as only two of them have a science Ph.D? Why demand transparency out of a field that has transparency built in to its process? And why attack the EPA specifically, when all scientific-based organizations make decisions in essentially the same way?

Perhaps because these Acts are not about increasing scientific transparency at all. They’re about crippling an Agency that protects us from environmental harm. And while HONEST and the EPA Reform Act may not be capable of increasing the EPA’s transparency, they are certainly equipped to dismantle it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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