Science in Society Archive

The Secret Science Act

In condemning the Secret Science Reform Act as a brazen attempt to obstruct regulation we must not lost sight of the pressing need for more transparency Prof Peter Saunders

The purpose of the curiously named Secret Science Reform Act of 2015 in the United States is, so its supporters insist, to ensure that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes its decisions on the basis of the best available science. In the words of the official summary [1]:

“This bill amends the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act of 1978 to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating a covered action unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support such action is the best available science, specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results. A covered action includes a risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.”

Reasonable enough you might think. Surely we would expect the EPA to draw on the best available science. It hardly seems necessary to pass a law reminding them to, and you certainly wouldn’t expect it to be controversial.

The controversy

In fact, it has become a highly partisan piece of legislation. In both houses of Congress, the Secret Science Reform bill was sponsored by Republicans known to be hostile to the EPA. When it was passed in the House, the voting was almost entirely on party lines: Republicans in favour and Democrats against. In the Senate, it is being strongly supported by the chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, Jim Inhofe, possibly the strongest climate change denier in Congress. As in the House, it is Democrats who oppose it, and the White House has already indicated that if Congress passes the bill, the President will veto it.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has written an open letter objecting to the bill [2]. They warn that it might have “unintended consequences” because key terms such as materials, data, and reproducible could be interpreted in ways that would interfere with the proper scientific work of the EPA. They might prevent it from using relevant results, such as longitudinal studies which by their very nature cannot be reproduced, or they might involve EPA scientists and others in large expenditure to cope with demands for data. The AAAS clearly see real danger here; they would hardly have written an open letter and invited scientific societies and universities to sign it if they did not.

The AAAS is right to be concerned, but this is not the greatest threat to the EPA. The neo-liberals already complain about the science when they find it inconvenient, and it’s unlikely that fiddling with definitions will make any real difference. A more serious danger lies in a companion bill that has attracted less attention, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act [3]. This provides for the appointment of members of the Board to fulfil a new requirement for “public participation.” It will bring representatives of industry right into the EPA, providing only that they declare conflicts of interest. At the same time, it would exclude many scientists with real expertise.

One of the roles of the Board will be to “communicate uncertainties,” i.e. provide official excuses for ignoring the EPA’s conclusions. At present, those who object to the EPA’s recommendations publicise their opinions through the media and their own lobby groups. They also exert influence through generous donations to campaign funds. The bill will make their views effectively part of the EPA’s advice. It will be as if the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages had to be followed by a statement denying that smoking is harmful.

Transparency

The Secret Science Reform Act is supposed to guarantee transparency. Its supporters are in favour of this because they believe, or claim to believe that the EPA has been “twisting the science to justify their actions” [4]. Its opponents insist that existing policies within the EPA are adequate to ensure transparency and that those who support the bill are really seeking to create obstacles that would prevent the implementation of nearly any regulation by the EPA and, by precedent, by any other agency.

We agree with the supporters that there must be more transparency, but for a quite different reason. Regulatory agencies, including but not only the EPA, too often base their assessments on results that are supplied by the industry being regulated and with the data kept secret on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. They would be much more effective if they were obliged to be open about their work.

While the worst sector for transparency is probably pharmaceuticals (see Tamiflu: A Colossal Waste of Money [5] and many other examples), the record of the EPA itself is poor. We are only now discovering that there has been evidence for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate since 1981, but Monsanto asked that the data be considered a trade secret and the EPA agreed to this, and moreover contrived to ignore the results in mislabelling glyphosate noncarcinogenic in their 1993 assessment (Glyphosate is Carcinogenic [6]).

The decision of the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) to licence Monsanto’s NK603 maize is an especially glaring example of unjustifiable secrecy. The data on which the decision was based were neither published nor made available on request. The French toxicologist Gilles-Eric Séralini was only able to obtain them by filing a Freedom of Information suit in the European Court (Excess Cancers and Deaths with GM Feed: the Stats Stand Up  [7]) and he then showed that Monsanto’s analysis had ignored some significant effects.

In contrast, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) has always put transparency at the centre of its work. Since 1971 it has evaluated 900 possibly carcinogenic agents, and it has insisted throughout that all the evidence it considers must be openly available. In particular, studies withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality are excluded [8]. Both the IARC and those who read the reports are thus able to judge for themselves the relevance and quality of the evidence on which the assessments have been made.    

To conclude

Both of the two bills presently before the US Congress have been designed to obstruct the EPA in its work of protecting public health and the environment. They must be stopped. Governments should also be careful not to make things too easy for vexatious demands for information when the aim is clearly to obstruct rather than to clarify. But regulatory agencies both in the US and in other countries must make their assessments using results that are publicly available. Decisions about health and the environment are far too important to be made on the basis of information that independent scientists and the public are not allowed to see.

Article first published 16/09/15



References

  1. Secret Science Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 1030, S.544 – 114th Congress). https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/544?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22s+544%22%5D%7D
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Letter to the Hon. Kevin McCarthy, March 16, 2015. http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/secret_science_2015_april.pdf 15/09/15
  3. EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2015. (H.R. 1029 – 114th Congress). https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1029/all-info
  4. Representative Lamar Smith, quoted in “Environmentalists, scientists fret over Republican bills targeting EPA science.” Puneet Kollipara, Science/AAAS News. http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2014/11/environmentalists-scientists-fret-over-republican-bills-targeting-epa-science 15/09/15.
  5. Saunders PT. Tamiflu: A colossal waste of money. Science in Society 63 42-43, 2014.
  6. Ho MW and Saunders PT. Glyphosate is carcinogenic. I-SIS Report 09/09/15. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Glyphosate_is_Carcinogenic.php
  7. Saunders PT. Excess cancers and deaths with GM feed: The stats stand up. Science in Society 56 4-5, 2012.
  8. IARC. Preamble to the IARC Monographs, 2006. http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Preamble/

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Rory Short Comment left 16th September 2015 15:03:24
When the pursuit of money is more important than anything else truth falls by the wayside.

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