Secret Science Act, Supported by Future NASA Head, Could Hurt Space Research

Representative Jim Bridenstine, President Donald Trump's nominee to become the NASA administrator, has supported efforts to make scientific research public ever since he was elected to Congress in 2012. Will he apply this belief to NASA, if and when he is confirmed?
Representative Jim Bridenstine, President Donald Trump's nominee to become the NASA administrator, has supported efforts to make scientific research public ever since he was elected to Congress in 2012. Will he apply this belief to NASA, if and when he is confirmed?
Illustration by Matt Griesmeyer
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Representative Jim Bridenstine is slated to be the next NASA administrator, and that means he has taken the stances in line with President Donald Trump's views. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Republican Oklahoma congressman (a Rice University graduate) has the required climate science skepticism that has become the doctrine of the Republican Party in recent years.

However, it's Bridenstine's years of support for legislation that would force government agencies like the EPA to hand over all scientific and technical data used to create the agency's environmental regulations that has made environmentalists and scientists wary of how his open-research beliefs could be applied to running NASA.

Bridenstine was one of the sponsors of the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017, also known as the HONEST Act, which is purportedly aimed at making government-funded scientific research more transparent.

But in reality the proposed legislation, which was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year but failed to gain traction in the Senate, would make it more difficult to put together environmental regulations, since the raw data needed to handle issues like air pollution is drawn from medical records of regular people, the sort of information that simply cannot be made public. If this proposed legislation were to become law, it would mean the EPA would likely have to abandon conducting much of the health research the agency oversees, since there would be no way to obtain and use personal health information without violating a patient's right to confidentiality.

As a sponsor of the bill, Bridenstine is decidedly a supporter of such measures and he's backed previous legislative attempts to force scientists to disclose research information, which started with the Secret Science Reform Act, trotted out by Republican Representative Lamar Smith, of San Antonio, back in 2014.

The first iteration was the Secret Science Reform Act, a remarkably similar bill that ostensibly aimed to "increase transparency" in science, which is just a nice way of saying Smith and his supporters, including Bridenstine, were gunning to rip away the veil of privacy over scientific research by opening government-funded scientific studies up to judicial review, as we've noted before.

On top of violating patient confidentiality and the privacy that scientists require to do their work without fear of political influence, such a measure would also cause the sheer cost of funding scientific studies to balloon by about $250 million annually for at least the first few years under the proposed legislation, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office.

Since the Trump administration is already planning on cutting the EPA budget to ribbons, there's no hope that the agency would get the extra funding to be able to conduct its research under the new measures required by the HONEST Act legislation, if it ever gets through the Senate.

And Bridenstine has been a stalwart supporter of the proposed legislation for years now.

“My children are in elementary school. They are required to show their work. If they don’t show their work, their integrity could be questioned, which would be appropriate, by the way,” Bridenstine said on the House floor in 2015 during debate on the Secret Science measure. “Is it too much to ask for the EPA to follow the same guidelines I give my children in elementary school? Show your work.”

That is troubling for EPA scientists, but Bridenstine's support of this type of legislation has other, more far-reaching implications if and when he is confirmed as NASA head administrator.

For one thing, the three-term Oklahoma congressman sits on the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, but he has no significant science background to draw on. As a former Navy pilot, his last gig before going into professional politics was as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium, so his main qualifications are based on spaceflight, which is interesting since there's not much of that going on at NASA right now.

But as the head of NASA, Bridenstine would be in charge of an agency that is tasked with more than just sending humans to space, even under the Trump administration. Despite Trump's anti-climate-change stance, the agency's Earth science budget has remained intact and NASA is still responsible for gathering and analyzing scientific data that will be used to create new environmental regulations and health standards in the future.

With Bridenstine leading NASA, he could conceivably institute an HONEST approach to the federal space agency's collection and use of data in coming years, a development that scientists have long insisted hurts their ability to conduct pure, non-political research. Bridenstine could even force the agency to open up on how its climate change research is conducted in a way that kills the ability to conduct such research without even having to formally end it.

However, supporters maintain that such an approach will be good for the EPA and good for NASA in the long run, since they believe federal agencies were allowed to overreach on both research, findings and regulations under the Obama administration. Bridenstine himself has said that while he does not believe in climate change, he is open to studying climate science, so that's something as well.

Either way, Bridenstine is a big proponent of space exploration, as we've noted before, and the odds are good he will push hard to get NASA back into a place of prominence on the final frontier, although his previous statements over the years have made it clear that he is in favor of both a commercial and a military presence in space, in addition to seeing NASA regain a firm foothold there.

But it's impossible to know how any of this will play with Trump, a president who does not seem to have given much thought to the space program.

Meanwhile, if Bridenstine pushes his open-data approach to research, it's fairly clear we'll simply see less research coming out of NASA over the next few years.

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