Hit & Run

Democrats in Congress Want to Keep Some Science Secret

Brilliant op-ed on the dangers of secret science

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Over at Nature, Daniel Sarewitz, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, has an incredibly important op-ed on the increasingly pervasive misuse of science in ideological debates. Playing off the recent revelations that much reported scientific research cannot be replicated, Sarewitz notes that many researchers - joined by Democrats on Capitol Hill - are actively resisting the release of their data used to justify regulatory decisions. As Sarewitz brilliantly explains:

Consider, for example, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2015, a US bill that would "prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible". Passed in March by the House of Representatives essentially along party lines (Republicans in favour, Democrats opposed) and now awaiting action by the Senate, the bill has been vigorously opposed by many scientific and environmental organizations.

They argue, probably correctly, that the bill's intent is to block and even roll back environmental regulations by requiring that all data on which the rules are based be made publicly available for independent replication. One of the main objections is that a lot of the scientific research that informs regulatory decisions is not of the sort that can be replicated. For example, a statement of opposition from numerous scientific societies and universities explains that: "With respect to reproducibility of research, some scientific research, especially in areas of public health, involves longitudinal studies that are so large and of great duration that they could not realistically be reproduced. Rather, these studies are replicated utilizing statistical modeling."

Precisely. Replication of the sort that can be done with tightly controlled laboratory experiments is indeed often impossible when you are studying the behaviour of dynamic, complex systems, for example at the intersection of human health, the natural environment and technological risks. But it is hard to see how this amounts to an argument against mandating open access to the data from these studies. Growing concerns about the quality of published scientific results have often singled out bad statistical practices and modelling assumptions, and have typically focused on the very types of science that often underlie regulations, such as efforts to quantify the population-wide health effects of a single chemical.

Although concerns about the bill's consequences are reasonable, the idea that it would be bad to make public the data underlying environmental regulations seems to contradict science's fundamental claims to objectivity and legitimacy. In June, a commentary in Science by an array of leading voices, including the current and future heads of the National Academies, flagged "increased transparency" and "increased data disclosure" as crucial elements of science's "self-correcting norm" that can help to address "the disconcerting rise in irreproducible findings" (B. Alberts et al. Science 348, 1420–1422; 2015). This is more or less the position taken by the Secret Science bill's sponsor, Representative Lamar Smith (Republican, Texas): "The bill requires the EPA to use data that is available to the public when the Agency writes its regulations. This allows independent researchers to evaluate the studies that the EPA uses to justify its regulations. This is the scientific method."

This battle for the soul of science is almost surreal in its avoidance of the true issue, which is ideological. One side believes that the government should introduce stricter environmental regulations; the other wants fewer restrictions on the marketplace. Science is the battleground, but it cannot adjudicate this dispute. At its core, the disagreement is about values, not facts. But just as importantly, the facts themselves are inevitably incomplete, uncertain, contested and, as we have been learning, often unreliable.

Like a divorced couple bitterly fighting over the custody of their child, both sides in the Secret Science debate insist that they have only the interests of science at heart. Republicans are using a narrow, idealized portrayal of science — that it produces clear and reproducible findings — as a weapon to undercut environmental and public-health regulation of the private sector. But many scientists, environmentalists and Democrats have long used similar portrayals to justify the same regulations, and to bash Republicans as anti-scientific when they did not agree.

There is simply no excuse for not making any data used to justify regulatory action publicly available for independent scrutiny. Anyone who says otherwise is a partisan hack science abuser.

For more background, see my post, "Is Regulatory Science an Oxymorn?"