Carlos Barria / REUTERS At the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, March 2017.

A Blow to Science at the EPA

H.R. 1430 Would Damage the Agency's Mission

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. 

Scott Pruitt being sworn in as EPA administrator, Washington, February 2017.

Scott Pruitt being sworn in as EPA administrator, Washington, February 2017.

TRANSPARENCY AND REPRODUCIBILITY

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 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.

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