HONEST Act needs honest engagement of scientific community
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Earlier this spring the House has passed—along almost entirely party lines—its bill requiring any EPA covered action be based on the best available science and that the underlying scientific and technical information be specifically identified and “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

The bill includes provisions intended to protect personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information. While we heartily support decisions based on the best available science and applaud the idea that researchers and federal agencies strive to make data available to others—under strict pledges to maintain confidentiality of data provided by individuals and establishments where necessary—to facilitate reproducible research, we have several concerns with H.R. 1430, Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act of 2017. We urge the bill be revised significantly in consultation of the scientific community before further consideration.

Our concerns include those voiced by others in past congresses (especially the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that the bill’s statements do not account for the complexities common to the scientific process on research that involves biological materials or physical specimens not easily accessible, combinations of public and private data, longitudinal data collected over many years that are difficult to reproduce, and data from one-time events that cannot be replicated.

The bill as written could have far-reaching consequences that would ultimately hamper or undermine the scientific process generally and EPA’s work specifically.

The goals of transparency in government and data accessibility must be balanced with the necessity to protect individuals’ and businesses’ privacy. The bill’s language of “publicly available” except that “any personally identifiable information, trade secrets, or commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential, shall be redacted prior to public availability” acknowledges this balance. However, this language is insufficient to protect individuals and businesses as well-known cases of re-identification have made clear. (Try Googling “re-identification of anonymous people”.)

A new provision in the bill this Congress, states “redacted information […] shall be disclosed to a person only after such person signs a written confidentiality agreement with the Administrator, subject to guidance to be developed by the administrator.” We understand and appreciate that government policy should be based on analyses that can be replicated and evaluated by independent scientists. However, we cannot support this bill’s language for doing so.

The government—including the EPA—routinely collects data such as private business information and private health information under strict pledges to protect confidentiality or on condition that it will not be shared. The pledges are enforced with strict penalties for violating them and it is essential to keep these promises to protect confidentiality. The bill lacks language on how confidentiality will be protected and for what purposes the EPA should consider data sharing.

These omissions and the related ambiguity could undermine EPA’s current and future data collection efforts. We urge careful consideration of the many conditions under which data are collected. We also urge close examination of the extensive protections in place for the sharing of data provided to federal statistical agencies which have decades of experience in protecting data confidentiality and whose data are collected under the 2002 Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act.

Let us also point out the current EPA procedures include checks and balances designed to assure integrity and objectivity. All major rules have Notices of Proposed Rule Making and many also have Advanced Notices of Proposed Rule Making. These notices call for public comment, and the resultant comments must be substantively addressed.

Further, rules of a scientific nature undergo review by the Science Advisory Board whose members are independent area experts. Comments made by the Board must also be substantively addressed prior to a rule's promulgation. Dealing more directly with the data underlying EPA rules and procedures, EPA abides by the Information Quality Guidelines which prescribe comprehensive measures to assure quality, objectivity, utility, and integration of the data used in the rule.

We close with our firm belief that science legislation should be bipartisan and formulated in consultation with the scientific community. By its very nature, science should transcend partisan lines. For science legislation, the engagement of the scientific community is imperative because of the complicated processes and considerations of science. This is not to say that only scientists have the expertise to administer or legislate science. To the contrary, scientists generally lack the legislative expertise of members of Congress, just as legislators generally lack scientific expertise. Effective scientific legislation therefore benefits enormously from legislators engaging scientists.

Barry D. Nussbaum the 2017 president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) and former Chief Statistician at the Environmental Protection Agency. Jerry Reiter is a Professor of Statistical Science at Duke University and chairs the ASA Scientific and Public Affairs Advisory Committee. (Reiter’s title and affiliation are provided for identification purposes only; any views expressed herein are his alone and do not reflect the views of Duke University.) This piece is based on a letter a sent by Nussbaum to the Senate Environment and Public Works committee last month: https://www.amstat.org/asa/files/pdfs/POL-HONEST_ActLetter.pdf. Reiter’s committee helped craft the letter.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.