The Trump Administration Snuck Through Some More Anti-Science Legislation When You Were Distracted

Endangered animals, like the red wolf pictured, could be at risk. Joanna Wu/Shutterstock

When the US was (quite understandably) preoccupied with a certain Supreme Court hearing, the Trump administration snuck through some more anti-science legislation.

The “Promoting Open Science” order was signed by Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt on September 28, taking effect immediately. The purpose of this new legislation is, supposedly, to make sure the Department of Interior "bases its decisions on the best available science". And it does so by requiring that officials only use scientific studies and findings where the raw data is publically available, allowing for a few exceptions. 

"Any decision based on scientific conclusions. that are not supported by publicly available raw data, analysis, or methodology, have not been peer-reviewed, or are not readily reproducible should include an explanation of why such science is the best available information," the order states

The legislation was introduced due to concerns that the department is "cherry picking science to support pre-determined outcomes," agency spokesperson Heather Swift told Buzzfeed News.

On the face of it, it all sounds quite positive but the scientific community – people who, you could argue, have a fairly good grasp on how science works – have been quick to criticize the policy. Their reasoning – by placing restrictions on the use of quality science in the name of transparency, the order makes it harder for officials to write regulations and encourages them to divulge sensitive information.

"The order... is not unlike the EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” proposed rule, in that it restricts the use of science in important decisions that affects the public and our environment," wrote Charise Johnson for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"When you dig deeper it is easy to see this order for what it is: an attempt to place unnecessary burdens on the use of scientific evidence that runs contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda."

Not only will these additional burdens place more strain on agency scientists who are already having to contend with budget cutsreshuffles, and anti-science department heads, there is scientific information that has legitimate reasons for not being made public (it is too sensitive) that will now be harder to use. For example, the private addresses of cultural resources, or the locations of individuals of an endangered species. 

"Allowing such data to be publicly available could put individuals, species, and culturally or religiously important sites at risk," Johnson continued, using the analogy of telling poachers where to find the last living rhinos. 

But it's not just an ethical dilemma. It's a practical one too. Sometimes the raw data used in older studies is inaccessible, making reproducibility an issue, Johnson says. "[R]aw data is not typically reviewed even in the most rigorous peer-reviews. Instead, the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results, and conclusions are reviewed to assess the quality of the work."

Of course, the order does include a caveat. The department is prepared to offer waivers to protect privacy and confidentially with particular emphasis on issues relating to "confidential business information and trade secrets, national security, and homeland security."

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