WASHINGTON (CN) – After legislation was introduced to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, a fierce partisan battle continues to rage over science, federal overreach and the agency's future role in policymaking.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sponsored and submitted a bill last week to terminate the EPA. The bill was sent to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology for review on Friday.
On Tuesday, the committee was mum on Gaetz's proposal as it waded through testimony in a hearing it dubbed "Making the EPA Great Again."
Given the borrowed use of the ubiquitous phrase from President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, pleas to depoliticize science came somewhat ironically.
The lone scientist on the hearing panel, Rush Holt, a physicist and former New Jersey congressman, urged representatives to remember how vital science's role is across a variety of federal institutions.
"There isn't an agency in government that doesn't have significant scientific components," said Holt, who is head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development does well to have social scientists among its ranks to study data, he said, and the same would go for Justice Department officials who retain forensic scientists to bolster policymaking decisions.
"Science-based policymaking is important in every aspect of government and if scientific processes are not free to communicate or collaborate or if they do not have the ability to operate without intimidation, it will harm the economy and human welfare," Holt warned the committee.
Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and several fellow Republicans did not disagree with Holt outright over the necessity of scientific studies to improve quality of life.
But the devil is in the details – the notion widely shared among Republicans on the committee is that the EPA’s mission should not be a political one and its agenda should be purely scientific.
To retain that purely scientific agenda, Smith said, passage of the Secret Science Reform Act is likely needed.
The legislation, introduced by Smith in 2015, has died twice before on the Senate floor.
Former President Barack Obama was widely and publicly advised to veto the bill if it came before his desk. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., once called the legislation "laughable."
But with Republicans in control of Congress and a Trump administration openly unfavorable to the EPA, Smith may have the last laugh yet.
If passed, the act would require the EPA to base its new regulations on "transparent" science, meaning all of the data from a study would have to be posted publicly.
Dr. Kim White, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, also testified on Tuesday in support of overhauling aspects of the agency.
She doubled down her support in an eight-page prepared testimony detailing the ways in which the EPA uses old data when issuing new regulations.
"Data should be made available so people can read through it and evaluate for themselves," White said.
While the push for transparency appears harmless and reasonable, detractors claim hidden dangers lurk in the bill. For example, health research on topics like asthma in children or the links between pollution and cardiovascular disease often contain confidential, personal information about subjects in the study.
Forcing transparency could bar the EPA from issuing regulations that are based on data which hasn't yet been made public. In effect, this bars scientists from taking on independent analysis.
The Secret Science Reform Act’s passage could also keep scientists from more effectively studying one-time events, like a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the effects that partial bans of chemicals like chlorpyrifos has on children. Research on the effects of that pesticide resulted in the EPA putting a stop to its agricultural use.
Tyler Smith, a staff scientist at Earth Justice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, weighed in by phone and email after the hearing Tuesday afternoon.
"We need to be very clear about what [the Secret Science Reform Act] is all about. We need to move beyond wonky explanations that its supporters provide and talk about how this bill will prevent the EPA from protecting children with asthma or protecting them from toxic pesticides," he said. "This is not about transparency, despite what supporters say, this is about keeping people safe."
Holt tried that line of reasoning with Chairman Smith. The Texan snapped back at the physicist, saying Holt "knew as well as anybody" that redactions were one avenue to dealing with fears brought up by possible new transparency rules.
Though Holt was unable to respond to the chairman during the hearing, Tyler Smith poked holes in that logic.
"While redaction can protect some personal information, some of the time, it will not protect all personal information all of the time," he said. "In smaller studies, for example, knowing 10 things about an individual may allow people to guess the individual's name."
In Smith’s view, this is just another way for groups like the American Chemistry Council, which reportedly spent more than $80 million from 2006 to 2016 on lobbying, to further their own political agendas.
"The reality is that industry is trying to use transparency to cover up the health risks posed by toxic chemicals," he said.