Science Committee Debates Standards of Scientific Quality at EPA and NOAA

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Publication date: 
9 February 2017
Number: 
17

At a House Science Committee hearing, Republican and Democratic committee members squared off on the question of whether regulatory activity at EPA currently meets high standards of scientific quality or requires reform. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) also used the hearing to air a new allegation of scientific misconduct at NOAA.

On Feb. 7, the House Science Committee convened a hearing entitled “Making EPA Great Again” to, as Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained, “examine how the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates and uses science in its regulatory decision making process.”

In their remarks, Republican committee members asserted that many scientists, including at EPA, are beholden to government funding and to a culture of federal regulatory overreach, which compromises the integrity of their work. In line with this general perspective, Smith also drew attention to new claims by a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist that the agency circumvented proper procedure in moving a major climate science paper to publication ahead of the Paris climate change summit held in late 2015.

Democratic committee members countered that Republican reforms would undermine scientific quality in federal agencies to the ultimate detriment of the nation. In her opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) remarked that the threat is especially pronounced “when such efforts rely on biased, incomplete, and misleading information—‘alternative facts’ if you will—in an attempt to advance a provably false narrative against the EPA.”

Majority witnesses testify that EPA process is flawed

The committee’s Republican majority invited three witnesses to testify: Jeffrey Holmstead, an attorney and former EPA official who heads the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell LLP; Kimberly White of the American Chemistry Council, which represents the interests of the chemical industry; and Richard Belzer, an expert in cost-benefit analysis who formerly served on the White House staff under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Together, the witnesses painted a picture of an EPA regulatory process in need of major reform. In their view, current practices are insufficiently transparent, employ inconsistent decision-making criteria, and do not follow sufficiently robust and responsive peer review and public comment procedures. The witnesses also agreed that EPA’s Science Advisory Board should be reconfigured. In his opening statement, Holmstead pointed out that the board’s members are appointed by the EPA administrator on advice from EPA staff, and argued,

EPA tends to choose people who share EPA’s views about the importance of environmental issues. The members of the SAB and other subsidiary groups are well qualified and have good credentials, but there are other scientists and researchers who are equally well qualified but do not get appointed because they are more skeptical about EPA’s views on certain important issues.

The witnesses’ testimony bolstered support for two bills that Republican members of the Science Committee are considering reintroducing this session. The “Secret Science Reform Act” would mandate that EPA open all data underlying its regulations to public scrutiny, and impose stricter demands on the scientific justifications for new regulations. The “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act” would require EPA to include representatives of a broader range of stakeholders on its Science Advisory Board and place new restrictions on board member activities.

AAAS CEO defends integrity of current practices

The Democratic minority’s witness was physicist Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former Democratic congressman. Holt argued that scientific analysis employed in the regulatory process should be guarded against political interference. In his opening statement, he remarked,

We need more reverence for evidence in our policymaking. Without respect for evidence, and by extension evidence-based policymaking, our country’s future, and indeed all of humanity’s future, becomes dangerously compromised.

Questions posed by a number of Democratic committee members also reflected this point of view. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), in particular, drew strong connections between the Republicans’ agenda for EPA, the rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change, and recent concerns about how scientific integrity will fare under the Trump administration.

beyer-epa-hat.jpg

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) dons a “Keep the EPA Great” cap to show his opposition to proposed reforms to the agency’s regulatory process.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) put on a “Keep the EPA Great” cap to show his opposition to proposed reforms to the agency’s regulatory process.

(Image credit – House Science Committee)

Still from government video, public domain

In response to other questions, Holt touched on more specific criticisms of Republican reform proposals, arguing they would substitute accepted evidentiary and methodological standards with less appropriate ones that would inhibit EPA’s ability to develop regulations quickly and effectively.

For instance, Holt argued that regulators were not engaged in a “conspiracy of hiding data,” but rather that they rely heavily on peer-reviewed articles, which often do not make their underlying data public for reasons such as privacy protection. Holt also noted that demands for replicated studies do not reflect the fact that many studies are not directly replicable, and that the “gold standard” is to use corroborative studies that employ complementary methods. He also noted that it can be difficult to justify individual regulations on a cost-benefit basis since many costs and benefits are “of second and even third order and indirect,” making them difficult to calculate explicitly.

Concerning EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Holt argued that its function is to advise on scientific questions, and that “in the name of balance and diversity there is an effort to make it less scientific.” He suggested that other, more appropriate channels might be used to address questions such as the cost of regulations to industry stakeholders.

Smith probes Holt about NOAA data mishandling accusations

Early in the hearing, Smith also broached the claims made by retired NOAA scientist John Bates that the agency had, in Smith’s words, “deceived the American people by falsifying data to justify a partisan agenda.”

On Feb. 4, Bates published a blog post, arguing that other NOAA scientists had not followed proper data handling procedures prior to publishing a paper in the journal Science, which argued against the existence of a “hiatus” in global climatic warming between 1998 and 2013. The Science Committee launched an investigation of the paper soon after it appeared in June 2015, and ultimately issued a subpoena, which is still outstanding, for relevant NOAA records. This last action drew a fierce backlash from committee Democrats and a number of scientific organizations, including AAAS.

Seizing on the new claims, Smith cited a statement by the editor-in-chief of Science saying the journal would consider its options, including retraction, and asked Holt whether AAAS, which publishes Science, would commit to “launching a thorough investigation.”

In reply, Holt pointed to an article published by E&E News that morning, in which Bates clarified that he was not claiming that NOAA had tampered with data or suppressed policy-relevant conclusions, but rather that the agency had not followed its own data-handling standards. Holt went on, “This is not the making of a big scandal. This is an internal dispute between two factions within an agency,” and explained that, on that basis, retraction did not seem warranted.

Smith, in turn, insisted that what he had read suggested that NOAA had “cheated and got caught” and did “falsify data to exaggerate global warming,” and that the study in question had “violated scientific integrity rules.” He encouraged Holt to talk to Bates and investigate further.

The Science Committee may well revisit this issue in the future.

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