The current attack on Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) science is unparalleled since the Reagan Administration. Reagan first chose Anne Gorsuch as EPA Administrator to fulfill his anti-EPA campaign threats, which President Trump has echoed.
Gorsuch did much harm to EPA’s science. Responding to the breadth of opposition to his environmental policies, and facing a 1984 re-election, Reagan replaced Gorsuch with William Ruckelshaus.
After Reagan’s 1984 re-election, the Heritage Foundation updated their influential “Mandate for Leadership.” They argued that replacing Gorsuch with the more liberal Ruckelshaus had been a mistake, but they also said that Gorsuch had erred in reducing EPA’s science because research is necessary for intelligent change.
Now two Republican bills aimed at destroying the scientific basis for EPA’s decisions have passed the House and await Senate action. If passed and signed into law, their persistent destructive impact on intelligent environmental regulation would overshadow EPA’s budget cuts and the EPA Administrator’s unwillingness to accept the facts about climate change
One bill, the misnamed The Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST Act), would bar EPA from considering in its regulatory activities any peer-reviewed scientific work unless raw data are fully available to anyone who seeks to repeat the study.
Supporters cloak this requirement in the seemingly innocuous argument that replication of research is a central tenet of science. But scientific replication is not attained by simply repeating the exact details of an experiment — that is for a grade school science class.
Replication is best achieved when the findings of the initial study are supported by other studies approaching the same question in different ways. The poster child used by advocates of this bill is an allegedly secret peer-reviewed Harvard study which first reported that inhaling relatively low levels of airborne particulates increased risks of dying. But this finding has been replicated in many American, Canadian and European studies by different investigators using different methods.
The proper name for this bill is the (dis)HONEST Act. Supporters do not want an independent scientific study which might confirm an unwanted outcome. The true goal is to pay consultants to nitpick among study details to find meaningless blemishes which can then be exaggerated into allegedly fatal scars.
An example comes from the controversy about whether formaldehyde causes leukemia. A pivotal 2010 study supporting such a causal relation found chromosome abnormalities predictive of leukemia in heavily exposed workers. Industry may be right that formaldehyde is not a cause of leukemia, but it needs to repeat the study. Instead, the formaldehyde industry has spent far more reanalyzing the raw data obtained from a FOIA request to the National Cancer Institute. The result has been delay and obfuscation, but no real change in our understanding of the underlying issue of whether formaldehyde causes leukemia.
Another major problem with the HONEST Act is that it would forcibly discard existing peer-reviewed scientific research which has been confirmed in multiple studies by scientists who long ago threw out all of the trivial research details the HONEST Act would require for EPA’s regulatory considerations.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which priced out the predecessor to this bill as $250 million per year, almost half of EPA’s total research budget, now says that the costs will be relatively minimal because current EPA leadership has assured them that it would significantly reduce the number of studies that the agency relies on when issuing or proposing covered actions.
The idea that throwing out the web of peer-reviewed science underlying regulation has no cost in dollars, or in EPA’s scientific integrity, is ludicrous. The HONEST Act also could affect EPA’s timely response to the controversial determination of the dispersant to be used for the next oil spill, or EPA’s risk determinations for difficult and costly clean up decisions after a terrorist attack that left behind an infectious agent or radiation. Similarly, much of the peer-reviewed science underlying past EPA regulations could not be used when decisions that have improved our environment were reconsidered, such as the required review of air pollution standards every five years.
The companion bill would amend the rules governing EPA’s scientific advisory processes to increase industry participation while excluding knowledgeable independent scientists, such as the academic scientist who has successfully competed in a peer process for EPA grant funding.
This exclusion would be for the duration of the grant and no new grants could be received for three years after serving in an advisory capacity, even though the scientist would now be particularly knowledgeable about research needed to narrow the crucial scientific uncertainties underlying debates about effective regulation.
Supporters of this bill argue that EPA-funded scientists are inherently biased in favor of regulation. But academics who perform bad science lose credibility and their ability to successfully compete for grants or promotion. In contrast, those in the consultant community who successfully exaggerate an inconsequential blemish in a complex study get hired again. Inevitably, being forced to spend considerable time defending against obfuscation by opponents of the eventual regulatory outcome, rather than on advancing their scientific careers, will substantially lessen the willingness of independent scientists to work on policy-relevant environmental topics.
This act also requires written EPA response to any submitted comment about the scientific review, an expensive process which would be duplicated if the science is later used as a basis for regulation.
The Heritage Foundation’s advice, along with Ruckelshaus’ leadership, was instrumental in rejuvenating EPA’s science in the Reagan administration. But if the HONEST Act and its companion become law, their crippling impact will continue long after we have an Administration that accepts the obvious about climate change - and much longer than it took for the Heritage Foundation to learn that the Reagan Administration’s anti-science policies were harmful to cost-effective environmental regulation.
Dr. Bernard Goldstein is a member of the National Academy of Medicine who was EPA assistant administrator for research and development in the Reagan Administration.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.