Both Parties Pushing Legislation in the Name of Scientific Integrity and Transparency

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Publication date: 
10 March 2017
Number: 
30

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are invoking the cause of scientific integrity and transparency to advance certain legislative proposals. The Democratic bills would codify standards of conduct and protections for federal scientists, while the Republican bills would reform the use of science in the federal rulemaking process.

Within the past two months, lawmakers from both parties have introduced bills they claim will improve how the federal government conducts and uses science. Although each possesses little or no support from the other party and they vary considerably in their aims and scope, each side has cast their efforts as enhancing the integrity of government science.

Democratic bills would help codify Obama-era integrity policies

A large number of House and Senate Democrats have lined up in support of legislation that would direct federal agencies engaged in research to formulate scientific integrity policies that “promote and maximize the communication and open exchange of data and findings to other agencies, policymakers, and the public.” The bills also state that the agencies should design the policies to guard against distortion or suppression of research data and results.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, introduced the “Scientific Integrity Act” in February, and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced a similar bill on March 2. As of March 10, the bill has 29 Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, 87 Democratic co-sponsors in the House, and no Republican supporters in either chamber.

In a press release announcing the bill’s introduction, Tonko explained he is sponsoring the legislation out of concerns about growing political influence on scientists:

More and more, research [conducted by federal scientists] has become the subject of one political agenda or another. Not since the Scientific Revolution has there been a more important moment to stand for the basic ideas that inquiry must be free and facts and evidence matter.

In the same press release, Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) asserted that the bill would help restore public trust in science:

I am concerned about the increasing suppression or denial of widely supported and tested scientific findings by some government and private sector leaders because of politics, ideology, or financial conflicts of interest. Those actions have contributed to an erosion in the public’s trust in science and done great harm to policy makers’ ability to develop smart solutions to our nation’s challenges. It’s time to restore the public trust and ensure the integrity of science in the policymaking process.

The bill would largely provide a statutory underpinning for scientific integrity policies that over 20 agencies have already developed in response to a 2009 presidential memorandum. Links to the policies developed based on the memorandum are available here.

John Holdren, who served as President Obama’s science advisor, endorsed the bill, saying it would "embody in law important elements of the progress on scientific integrity and transparency in government we were able to make in the Obama Administration using Executive authority."

Republican bills aim to reform EPA’s use of science

On the Republican side of the aisle, members have advanced several measures to reform federal rulemaking processes. Two examples specific to agency consideration of scientific findings are the “Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act” and the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act.” As of March 10, each bill has just under 30 Republican co-sponsors and one Democratic co-sponsor.

Sponsored by House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), the “HONEST Act” is similar to Smith’s “Secret Science Reform Act,” which the House passed last Congress on a mostly party-line vote. The bill would require EPA to base various agency decisions on the “best available science” and would prevent the agency from using scientific findings unless the underlying data, models, methods, and other materials are "publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

Two notable changes from the previous version are inclusion of protections for personally identifiable information and confidential business information as well as language stipulating that the new requirements do not apply retroactively.

The “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act,” sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), is almost identical to a bill he introduced last Congress that the House passed on a mostly party-line vote. The bill would set various membership criteria for EPA’s Science Advisory Board and implement a more extensive public comment process. The board currently has over 40 members, most of whom are based at universities.

Among its modifications to the membership criteria, the bill would prevent current recipients of EPA grants from serving on the board and would bar departing members from receiving EPA grants for three years. The bill also requires that at least 10 percent of the board be drawn from state, local or tribal governments and contains provisions that would make it easier for industry experts to serve on the panel.

Republicans appeal to similar principles in advancing their proposals

Following a Feb. 7 hearing entitled “Making EPA Great Again,” the Science Committee held a markup on March 9 to debate and vote on each bill. After a heated debate, the committee approved both on party-line votes.

During the debate, the bills’ supporters invoked similar ideals as Democrats did when promoting their scientific integrity bills. Smith described his bill as a necessary step to restoring public trust in the science that underpins regulations, remarking, “An open and honest scientific process is long overdue at EPA. American taxpayers have often had to foot the bill for regulations and rules based on hidden science that has not been available for review by the public.”

Smith pointed to advances in technology as necessitating such sharing with the public:

The days of trust-me ‘science’ are over. In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only upon data that is available for every American to see and can be subjected to independent review.

Lucas explicitly framed his bill in terms of scientific integrity:

We must reaffirm the Board’s independence so that the public can be confident that policy decisions are not hijacked by a pre-determined political agenda. It’s time to update the law to restore scientific integrity to the process and independence to the Board.

And in an analogue to Holdren’s statement on the Democratic bill, William Happer, a Princeton University physics professor who was interviewed for the position of science advisor to President Trump, endorsed both bills and noted he would support application of the principles across the government.

Committee Democrats blasted both bills as overt moves to undermine the integrity and independence of the agency. In her comments on the “HONEST Act,” Johnson juxtaposed the “’who’s who’ of toxic chemical manufacturers” who have endorsed the bill with those opposed, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Lung Association, concluding,

The differences in those two groups underscores the real intent of this legislation: To undermine the science that EPA can use in their work, and ultimately, make it easier to pollute in our country. If this bill were enacted, EPA could be crippled, and the result would be more sick Americans and more dead Americans.

As for the advisory board bill, Johnson argued that it would overly permit participation of industry representatives with conflicts of interest, make it harder for highly qualified scientists to serve on the board, and impose unreasonable public comment requirements.

Congressional Budget Office analyses of previous versions of the bills estimated that it would cost EPA approximately $250 million dollars annually over several years to meet the transparency requirements of the “Secret Science Reform Act” and about $2 million over five years to implement the advisory board modifications. The “HONEST Act” authorizes EPA to use up to $1 million per year to implement the bill.

The bitterness of the debate prompted Smith to address a high school class sitting in on the markup, explaining that the committee is not always so divided: “You’re going to hear some strong language today when we talk about these bills. We don’t take it personally, or we try not to. People do have legitimate differences of opinion. Bills are not always bipartisan.”

He then made a point of noting that many of the bills originating from the committee in the previous Congress were in fact bipartisan.

“But today’s bills did not enjoy that particular rank.”

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