NAS Endorses Secret Science Reform Act

Jun 27, 2014 |  Glenn Ricketts

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NAS Endorses Secret Science Reform Act

Jun 27, 2014 | 

Glenn Ricketts

Is a tax-supported federal regulatory agency – such as the Environmental Protection Agency – subject to public oversight?   Is EPA obliged to make public the scientific data on which its regulatory policies are based?  For NAS, the answer to both questions is unequivocally affirmative.  President Peter Wood recently joined a group of academics and scientists to sign a letter endorsing the Secret Science Reform Act, just approved this week by the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology

According to committee chairman and co-sponsor Lamar Smith (R. Texas), the bill is necessary because the EPA’s “regulatory process is both hidden and flawed.  It hides the data and then handpicks the scientists to review it.  Unfortunately, the EPA continues to resist basic accountability.”  At issue are the specific data cited by EPA in support of controversial greenhouse regulations, data which Smith and the bill’s supporters charge that the agency refuses to divulge.

Not everyone favored this appeal to transparency and accountability.  Ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D. Texas) denounced the bill as “anti-science and anti-health,” and accused to the committee’s majority of harassing the agency.  Several major organizations lined up with Johnson, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Lung Association.

But NAS, where we’ve frequently made use of public information laws, has long favored public accountability for public agencies.  That’s not to say that disclosure should be unrestricted, but the data requested from EPA fall well within the bounds of proper public scrutiny.  Taxpayers are entitled to know how their money is being used.


| July 01, 2014 - 12:04 PM

It would certainly be worthwhile, to say the least, to know why the American Lung Association is against this.

Glenn Ricketts

| July 01, 2014 - 3:21 PM

At the Association’s web page is posted a letter dated last February 10 to Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, then the ranking member of the House committee on Science Space and Technology.  According to the letter, a vital element in good science is “patient confidentiality,” which the Secret Science Reform Act threatens.  I don’t see how, but that’s the position stated there.


| July 02, 2014 - 5:51 PM

The American Association for the Advancement of Science certainly makes objections that are cogent to me—here:

The House Committee will have to do better, especially given the well-known political opposition of the Republicans to anything having to do with ameliorating global warming—including statements verging on being anti-scientific, if not anti-science per se.

Admittedly, the EPA has been asking for it.  My view is, a pox on everyone!  But perhaps some good will come out of the acrimony.

Glenn Ricketts

| July 02, 2014 - 8:06 PM

Hopefully, those objections will be addressed, although the bill also doesn’t have a prayer - if it chances to pass the House, it would go nowhere in the Senate.

But the overall problem is still there: is a tax-supported public agency such as the EPA accountable in the same way that other agencies - such as the Pentagon - are?  At times the EPA has seemed to say “no.”  They really need to work on the PR, I’d say.


| July 07, 2014 - 3:58 PM

Oh, I would wager that the EPA has nothing on the Pentagon when it comes to scientific secrecy.  (There are good reasons for much military scientific secrecy, though as prominent a critic as Edward Teller thought there was way too much). 

I would tend to agree that government sponsored science should be publicly available, more or less—is the government going to spend extra money on open access?—as long as individual confidentiality is protected (here I tend to have the qualms of the lung association) and as long as the openness isn’t used to harass individual scientists.

Here, I think that the Virginia AG (Cucinnelli) lawsuit against Michael Mann (which I believe NAS supported) was a horrid example of the pitfalls of openness. 

Perhaps the two houses of Congress, together with President Obama, will work together to get things right. 

Probably like you, I wouldn’t hold my breath!

Glenn Ricketts

| July 10, 2014 - 1:46 PM

Yes, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, we offered tentative support initially with strong reservations about “fishing” etc.  The subsequent court decision, in my own opinion was correct.

This case, on the face of it, seems much simpler, and need not have come to this if EPA had handled things a bit more adroitly.  But as an organization, we are committed to the idea that publicly funded agencies are accountable to the public.  The exact lines to be drawn will depend on individual circumstances in each case.

By the way, my invitation to write an article for this page - how about this subject - still stands.