How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On March 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that its proponents argue would make scientific studies used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more transparent and reproducible. The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (H.R. 1430, or HONEST) closely resembles measures known as the Secret Science Reform Acts that made their way through the House in 2014 and 2015 without becoming law. Like those previous bills, H.R. 1430 would prohibit the EPA from using scientific studies and research that cannot be recreated in full. The bill would also place unnecessary burdens on the EPA’s decisionmaking process and put draconian limits on the funding the EPA would receive to implement it.
As we’ve argued in a report coauthored with other members of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a nonprofit group, the bill would prevent the EPA from using studies that it needs to create important programs. The EPA has itself noted that it would use far fewer scientific studies to develop public protections and make less of its science publicly available under the proposed law. Standards that safeguard children from lead-based paint hazards, protect first responders from chemical explosions, and help reduce contaminants in drinking water, for example, rely in large part on the types of studies that H.R. 1430 would prohibit. By preventing the EPA from drawing on a large body of useful research, the bill would stifle the agency’s ability to protect the public as required by law.
First, the act would prohibit the EPA from using studies that cannot be reproduced. In many contexts, as in psychological studies done in controlled environments, reproducing a study's results is an essential part of proving its veracity. But in some cases, it is either impossible or dangerous to do so.
The requirement would mean that the EPA could no longer rely on studies of environmental disasters, such as chemical explosions, oil spills, and hurricanes, as those kinds of studies cannot be recreated. For instance, the EPA would be blocked from using studies of the effects of nuclear radiation caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to create safeguards against radioactive contaminants in drinking water, and from using studies on the 1984 Bhopal disaster, a gas leak at a chemical plant in India that killed thousands of people, to regulate and disseminate safety plans to help prevent similar incidents in the future. Other studies, like those of children exposed to lead paint, are no longer reproducible because they focused on groups of subjects that have no present-day counterparts, thanks to improved public health regulations. Under H.R. 1430,the EPA couldn’t use the results of those kinds of experiments to update important public protections. In short, the lessons that scientists have drawn from catastrophes and historical shortcomings in public health could no longer be used to create the protections that ensure that the worst consequences of such circumstances won’t be repeated.
Next, H.R. 1430 adds a twist to older, similar bills: it would allow the EPA to redact privileged and confidential data, such as personal medical data and corporate trade secrets, from studies that it posts online. By making it possible to publish every study used by the agency on the Internet, the bill’s proponents argue, this measure would make the agency’s use of science more transparent.
The trouble comes from the conditions under which the bill would permit the EPA to release this kind of privileged data—that is, when a person or group requesting the information signs a confidentiality agreement with the EPA administrator, developed under the administrator’s guidance. That provision does not explain how the EPA’s head should deal with important legal restrictions on disclosing confidential information, such as the intellectual property laws that would, for example, keep the EPA from revealing a chemical company’s prized formulations. The agency would thus have to deal with a more complicated process for creating public protections—draining its resources at the same time its funding is under threat.
The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan federal agency, has estimated that implementing the bill could cost anywhere from “a few million dollars” to “more than one hundred million dollars per year,” depending on a number of factors, such as how many protections the EPA introduces annually. If the EPA were to rely on as many studies as it has recently, the CBO has noted, the cost would be near the upper end of that range; in the meantime, the ambiguity would make it hard for the agency to make plans. Worse, H.R. 1430 limits the amount of funding the EPA would receive to implement the act to only $1 million. That means that the EPA would have to use far fewer scientific studies to create public health and safety measures than it does today—and would likely be forced to create fewer protections and safeguards. The bill’s ambiguity makes its precise effects unclear, but one thing is certain: H.R. 1430 would financially and scientifically constrain an agency tasked with creating important public health protections.
None of H.R. 1430’s recent predecessor bills reached the president’s desk, but the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama made clear that it would not entertain the thought of signing them into law even if they had. Because President Donald Trump’s administration has already hampered the EPA’s ability to address climate change and has appointed an EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency 14 times in his capacity as Oklahoma Attorney General before taking the top job, it seems possible that this time, the proposal will become law, though the bill’s chances in the Senate are still uncertain.
A law that enabled the public to use EPA data and funded improvements to the EPA’s databases and websites would be a powerful step toward increasing the transparency of the reports and data the agency relies on. But H.R. 1430 wouldn’t do those things. Its passage would be dangerous for the environment and the American public. Effective evidence-based policymaking requires that the government be able to use all of the scientific knowledge it has at its disposal.