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Summary of the Secret Science Reform Act of 2015

The Secret Science Reform Act amends the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act (ERDDA) of 1978, one of the major laws establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The bill reforms EPA’s ability to use scientific research, prohibiting the agency from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating a covered action” unless the research used to do so is “publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” 

A covered action from the EPA includes “a risk, exposure, hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.” In other words, a covered action is the means by which EPA carries out its mission to protect human health and the environment. An example of a covered action would be EPA’s regulation on coal emissions or its guidance on cleaning up an oil spill.

Proponents state the intent of the Secret Science Reform Act is to increase transparency, requiring the agency to use data and research that are published online and can be substantially reproduced. This legislation will have harmful unintended consequences, made clear in a letter from AAAS President Geraldine Richmond and an alternative letter from 34 other universities and scientific societies.

Making scientific data publically available online may work for some studies, but large swaths of scientific research are conducted by utilizing private personal data or confidential business information. For example, epidemiological studies collect private health information from participants where researchers and institutions sign agreements to protect this private data. In addition, research on the exposure of chemicals involves collecting proprietary business information where researchers and institutions also sign confidentiality agreements. The Secret Science Reform Act does not clarify if such private data will be protected if placed online, thus either risking the breach of confidential information or prohibiting the use of these studies altogether.

Regarding reproducibility, even if all data for certain studies is placed online, there are cases in which it is unrealistic to reproduce research results. Examples include studies conducted over long periods of time, such as a 40 year study of a forest, or one-time events like chemical and oil spills. Rather than attempting to reproduce the research results by conducting these studies twice, scientists instead use statistical modeling to replicate the research in order to verify and test results.

There is no indication of how the EPA should judge whether a scientific study meets the bill’s threshold of ‘substantial reproduction.” As a result, the EPA would be subject to constant judicial review, miring the agency in litigation and taking the review of scientific studies out of the hands of the scientific community and placing that responsibility into the hands of a judge and jury. This will burden the EPA with heavy administrative costs, and send a chilling effect to the scientific community and any researcher or institution whose work was cited by the EPA.

The Secret Science Reform Act has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Last year, it passed the House of Representatives 237 – 190, but failed to gain traction in the Senate as the two chambers were led by opposing parties in the 113th Congress.  In the 114th Congress, both chambers are controlled by Republicans, and the bill passed the House again by a vote of 241-175, and has thus far passed out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works 11-9 (party line vote), where it awaits further action in the full Senate.

In order to become law, the bill will need to pass the full Senate and be signed by President Obama. However, the President has already issued a Statement of Administrative Policy against the bill, which is akin to a veto threat. Though chances of the bill becoming law in the next two years are low, AAAS continues to reach out to lawmakers over the concerns with the bill.