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AAAS CEO Champions the Merit of Scientific Integrity in House Testimony

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Rush Holt fields questions on everything from scientific research to the costs of regulations to curb climate change during House hearing. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

AAAS CEO Rush Holt delivered on February 7 a forceful defense of the integrity of the scientific process, saying public policy efforts that interfere with the way science is practiced would make the United States less attractive to the world’s brightest minds and stifle the nation’s scientific progress.

“I am here to say: don’t try to reform the scientific process. It has served us well and will continue to serve us well,” said Holt, who heads the world’s largest general scientific organization, in testimony before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Holt laid out the many ways federal policymaking in Congress and the executive branch benefits from an open and independent scientific process. “However attractive any of us may find our own belief at any time, one’s odds of success are better if one goes with scientifically established thinking,” he said.

The testimony came during this year’s first policy hearing of the House Science Committee chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith. The session largely focused on legislative priorities that Smith had recently outlined, including two measures that the House passed but the Senate did not in the last two Congresses.

One bill on Smith’s list, the Secret Science Reform Act, would place restrictions on the type of scientific data that the Environmental Protection Agency can rely upon in drafting regulations, and bar the agency from using data that are not publicly available online, not “transparent” and not “reproducible.” 

Holt said science moves forward by continuing to examine a topic from multiple perspectives, and restrictions on that process would only slow scientific advancements. “That’s how science works,” he said. Data collected over long time periods do not remain static, Holt added, pointing to longitudinal studies on children and on forest ecosystems. Such data cannot be easily replicated, he noted, because children grow up and forests change.

The other bill on the committee’s list, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, would overhaul the way the EPA’s Science Advisory Board is structured, opening the panel that advises the EPA administrator to industry scientists whose organizations have a financial stake in topics under review as long as those interests are disclosed. The bill also would bar independent scientists who serve on the board from discussing their own research.

“Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas and people,” said Holt, a Ph.D. physicist and former House member who represented New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District for 16 years. Holt underscored that scientific discovery must unfold without concern of repercussions and take place in an atmosphere “free of intimidation or undue influence.”

“Policymakers should never dictate the conclusions of a scientific study and they should base policy on a review of relevant research and the provisions of relevant statutes,” Holt said. “In other words, the integrity of the process must be upheld.”

He added, “These are the principles that have helped the United States attract and richly benefit from scientific talent.”

In opening remarks, Smith raised concern sparked by a blog post about a 2015 Science paper by Thomas R. Karl and his co-authors. Karl, who has since retired, was then director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

The peer-reviewed research paper, titled “Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus,” disputed the notion that climate warming had slowed in recent years and suggested that warming had continued apace – a finding that has been replicated in several subsequent studies including a recent paper published in Science Advances.

In the blog post, John Bates, a former principal scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, asserted that in preparing this study, Karl and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “breached its own rules on scientific integrity.”  The claim drew swift attention from Smith, who issued a press release on February 5. At the hearing, Smith went further and called on Science to retract the study, and said he would call Bates to testify before his committee.

In response, Holt said Science stands behind the paper, noting that its findings have been subsequently replicated. Holt also said that Bates has not questioned the paper’s findings, but the way the data collected for it was archived. Holt noted that data management is an internal NOAA issue that the agency’s integrity officer may decide to review.

Jeremy Berg, Science editor-in-chief, also has said that Science stands behind the paper. He said it was subjected to particularly rigorous peer review and dismissed as “baseless” and “without merit” any suggestion that the paper was “rushed” into publication.

Berg said data used in the Science paper were deposited and were readily accessible according to Science policy. Science requires that “all data and materials necessary to understand, assess and extend the conclusions of the manuscript must be available to any reader of Science" after publication. That policy may differ from internal NOAA data archiving policies, Berg noted.

Testifying in the same panel as Holt were Jeffery Holmstead, a partner in the Texas law firm Bracewell LLP and former assistant EPA administrator under President George W. Bush; Kimberly White, senior director of chemical products and technology at the American Chemistry Council; and Richard Belzer, a private consultant who served in the White House Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

At the outset of the hearing, Holt said he would focus his remarks on the importance of using good science as the basis for public policies and regulation and he drew laughter in adding “I am pleased to note from the title of today’s hearing ‘Making EPA Great Again’ that [the committee] acknowledges that the EPA has been great.”

Meagan Phelan contributed to this story.

[Associated image: House Science Democrats]