The U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills on Nov. 18 and 19 that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtains and uses scientific data and advice. Calling passage of the two bills “an insidious attack on the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect the health of Americans and the environment,” House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) decried passage of H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act, and H.R. 1422, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013.
Each bill passed the House in a largely party line vote.
H.R. 4012 would prohibit the EPA from issuing regulations “based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible. The legislation states that the EPA’s rules must reflect information that is available “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” In reality, this means that the EPA cannot use “real world” medical research, much of which is based on patient data such as hospital admissions. Patient data cannot be made public, regardless of how critical a role they play in creating effective regulation.
In addition, the new rules promulgated in the bill would be expensive for the EPA to implement, effectively increasing the cost of each scientific study used by the agency for informing regulations. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the regulations would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 for each scientific study used by the agency. Given existing budget constraints, the legislation would effectively cut the number of studies the EPA could use by half, thus limiting new rules the EPA could impose.
A July 31 letter to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy signed by 43 scientific societies and research universities, including APS, conveyed their concerns about the bill: “The research community is concerned about how some of the key terms in the bill could be interpreted or misinterpreted, especially terms such as ‘materials,’ ‘data,’ and ‘reproducible.’”
H.R. 1422, passed by a 229-191 vote, would change the process of selecting members of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) and the terms of office. Specifically, it would forbid experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their work because it is perceived by the author of the bill as a conflict of interest. It would also make it more difficult for scientists who have applied for EPA grants to join the board. It would, however, make it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to serve on the SAB.
During debate on H.R. 1422 on the House floor, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Stewart, “I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”
Based on other bills being drafted by the House Science Committee, including the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (H.R. 4186), which assails the National Science Foundation’s peer review process, the passage of H.R. 1422 and H.R. 4012 indicates that the House Science Committee Majority will continue to target scientific research under the guise of transparency. In fact, departing Congressman Steve Stockman (R-TX) last week introduced H.R. 5718, entitled “The Stockman Effect Act” a bill to “study the effect of the Earth’s magnetic field on the weather.” The notion originates with Rep. Stockman himself, which he purports would call into question climate science. He is a legislator playing a scientist, but does not have any science credentials.
In the Senate, the retirement of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is not likely to spell the end of the silly-sounding science crusade given the ascendance of a Republican-led Senate next year.
The unhelpful legislative activity on science underscores the crucial need for scientists to become better at communicating the benefits of their research to the non-scientific public. Unfortunately, the days when scientific research was universally viewed as an unimpeachable public good are long gone; this recent activity requires scientists to respond to these latest challenges.
The APS Office of Public Affairs provides ample opportunity to facilitate members’ efforts to reach out to the public and to their members of Congress to help stem the anti-science tide. APS members can: visit their member offices in Washington, DC or in their home states or districts; they can become district advocates in targeted Congressional districts whose members play a role in decisions on science funding or in the setting of science policy at the federal level; and they can write OpEds in local or national newspapers or on-line publications. But no matter the instrument, scientists can no longer limit themselves to work in the lab; they must take action to ensure that anti-science rhetoric does not become enshrined in law.