The Interior Department has implemented a new policy that it says is meant to boost transparency and integrity of the science that its agencies use to make decisions.
The policy, outlined in an order issued last week by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, mandates that officials only use scientific studies or findings whose underlying data are publicly available and reproducible, with few exceptions.
Like a similar policy that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed, critics say the new “Promoting Open Science” policy is meant to restrict Interior’s ability to write regulations or make other decisions, by putting unnecessary restrictions on officials’ ability to use sound science.
Interior’s policy has potential reverberations across the department’s diverse agencies that oversee areas like endangered species, offshore drilling, American Indian relations and geology.
Bernhardt wrote in his order that the policy fits with President Trump’s executive orders on promoting energy production and reducing regulations, as well as past Interior policies on science.
He said the order is intended to ensure Interior “bases its decisions on the best available science and provide the American people with enough information to thoughtfully and substantively evaluate the data, methodology, and analysis used by the Department to inform its decisions.”
“This order came about in response to perennial concerns that the department has not been providing sufficient information to the public to explain how and why it reaches certain conclusions, or that it is cherry picking science to support pre-determined outcomes,” Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in a statement.
“The goal is for the department to play with its cards face-up, so that the American people can see how the department is analyzing important public policy issues and be confident that it is using the best information available to inform its decisions.”
Charise Johnson, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she doesn’t buy the administration’s argument that it cares about transparency.
“They want everything publicly accessible, including the raw data, and that just doesn’t happen with peer-reviewed science, because that just doesn’t tell you anything,” she said.
“It also makes it look like they don’t trust their own scientists’ work. These are people who do their jobs, they do it well, they’re qualified to be there and they know how science works. A lot of these other people are political appointees without science backgrounds who just want to carry out a certain agenda.”
Johnson said the order looks like it’s meant to further the Trump administration’s agenda at Interior, like removing barriers to oil and natural gas drilling and reducing protections for endangered species.
“This is an attempt to cherry-pick the kind of science that they want to put forward,” said Yogin Kothari, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior Washington representative.
Unlike the EPA’s policy, Interior’s new science order is not a proposed rule, so it took effect immediately last week.