Provision buried in bill would block cutting-edge science at government agencies
Today, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and twelve other Senators sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee leaders expressing concerns about the potential impacts of an anti-science provision buried in the House version of the Farm Bill. The so-called "Sound Science Act" would stifle high-quality science and decision-making across the federal government and undermine protections for public health, safety, and the environment.
In the letter sent to Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Senator Markey and his colleagues explain how the "Sound Science Act" would block federal scientists from using new techniques and technology, hinder the use of standard scientific tools like observational studies and models, and open the door to endless lawsuits from special interest groups. It would also require agencies to base policy decisions on new, poorly defined guidance language that is at odds with current law, providing additional opportunities to tie agencies' actions up in court.
"We are deeply concerned that the "Sound Science Act' will harm science-based decision making at all federal agencies and undermine protections for public health, safety and the environment," writes Senator Markey and his colleagues. "We urge you to keep this harmful provision, or any similar language, out of the final Farm Bill conference agreement."
Both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Consortium on Ocean Leadership are concerned that this provision would seriously damage scientists' ability to produce high quality research. For example, the "Sound Science Act" could be used to exclude research involving one-time events, such as studies on the effects of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Senators Richard Blumenthal, Barbara Boxer, Kristen Gillibrand, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Jeff Merkley, Bill Nelson, Jay Rockefeller, Brian Schatz, Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Ron Wyden signed the letter.
Full text of the letter is pasted below.
December 20, 2013
The Honorable Debbie Stabenow The Honorable Thad Cochran
Chairwoman Ranking Member
Senate Agriculture Committee Senate Agriculture Committee
133 Hart Senate Office Building 113 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510 Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Chairwoman Stabenow and Ranking Member Cochran,
We write to express our opposition to Sec. 12307 (Ensuring High Standards for Agency Use of Scientific Information) of H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013. In March 2013, Representative Stephen Fincher (R-TN) introduced this section as H.R. 1287, the Sound Science Act of 2013, and it was subsequently incorporated into the House-passed farm bill.
Contrary to its name, the "Sound Science Act" would make it nearly impossible for all federal agencies, including independent ones, to use science effectively to inform their decisions and protect public health, safety, and the environment. It would also effectively freeze agencies' decision making processes on January 1, 2014. The provision has received no hearings in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Such a dramatic change to the use of science across the entire federal government demands greater scrutiny than it has received before becoming law.
The "Sound Science Act" requires agencies to base policy decisions on "well established" scientific processes, but does not provide a definition for what science would be acceptable. This has the potential to eliminate the use of new, cutting edge and innovative science in agencies' decision-making and to hinder their ability to keep up with scientific and technical advances in their jurisdictions. By changing the scientific standard for agencies, the provision also opens the door for more legal challenges to agencies' actions by claiming that the science used for a decision was insufficiently "well established."
The provision also requires agencies to base policy decisions on "the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other evidence" which is at odds with statutory language in many key public health, safety and environmental laws that require the use of best available scientific data. This would cloud the decision making processes at agencies, rather than clarify it, and provide additional opportunities to tie agencies' actions up in court.
This provision also directs that federal agencies give "greatest weight to information that is based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data." This means that agencies may not be able to use research that is descriptive, theoretical, or correlational, rather than experimental. Many types of non-experimental research tools are critical for science-based management, such as the models used to assess the abundance of species or to understand the impact of pollution on human health. This emphasis could also be used to exclude non-reproducible research involving one-time events, such as research on the effects of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the evaluation of the flowrate from the well during the disaster.
The limits that the "Sound Science Act" seeks to impose on agencies would have hindered the government's efforts to quantify the amount of oil that discharged into the Gulf of Mexico and hold BP fully accountable for the disaster it caused.
We are deeply concerned that the "Sound Science Act" will harm science-based decision making at all federal agencies and undermine protections for public health, safety and the environment. We urge you to keep this harmful provision, or any similar language, out of the final Farm Bill conference agreement.