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AAAS CEO Defends Scientific Evidence, Urges EPA to Scrap “Transparency” Rule

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In testimony before a Senate panel, AAAS CEO Rush Holt delivered a strong critique of legislation that would sideline scientific evidence used as the basis for policies to human health and the environment. | Senate Photo Studio

A rulemaking measure that would exclude the Environmental Protection Agency from relying on vital scientific findings in formulating policies and enforcing regulations would jeopardize the agency’s ability to protect human health and the environment, the American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt told a Senate subcommittee on Oct. 3.

“To put it bluntly, the initiative you consider today is not about sound science. It is about reducing regulations,” said Holt. “The effect of the rule would be a significant reduction in good, relevant science that could be used by the Environmental Protection Agency and the change would likely result in harm to people and their environment.”

Holt’s testimony came as a response to a legislative proposal first known as the Secret Science Act, then recast as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act, and, more recently, found its way in a proposed EPA rule, known as the “transparency rule.”

The House passed its version of the measure, HR 1530, on March 29, 2017. Holt’s testimony came during the first consideration of the Senate version, S-1794, in a hearing held by the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight, chaired by Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who introduced the bill last December.

More recently, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed the rule that essentially transformed the legislation into a proposed federal regulation named the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, which remains pending.

In remarks opening the hearing, Rounds outlined his support for legislation and the transparency rule, saying the EPA should make publicly available all scientific evidence it uses as a basis for regulatory actions, and do so in a way that makes it publicly available for “independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker countered, saying the rule and the proposed legislation would keep the EPA from studying scientific data gathered in the wake of previous environmental disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; pursuing scientific studies that require private medical information or proprietary business information because such data cannot be publicly released; and setting new lead standards to limit exposure to children because the original research findings draw from historical studies.

Holt examined the justification proponents have set out for the proposed rule: the need to end “secret science.” The position, Holt said, is an assertion lacking evidence that EPA’s procedures or resulting scientific research are flawed. “The open secret really is that the proponents of the rule are not seeking a better scientific process. They appear to be seeking a way to cherry pick research in order to loosen regulations,” he said.

“Transparency, openness, and peer review in regulatory science are essential ingredients of science espoused by AAAS since its founding in 1848,” Holt said. “However, this so-called transparency rule is an insidious dodge.” The legislation before the subcommittee, Holt added, “is not justified.”

In fielding questions from senators, Holt called the transparency rule’s requirement that the scientific findings the EPA relied upon be replicated even years later a “red herring.” Natural disasters, for instance, cannot be replicated due to their very nature, he noted.

“There are many circumstances where experiments can’t be repeated but can be verified through peer review and independent verification … You don’t need to know the names of victims who breathe dirty air or drink tainted water to know the science is done right,” Holt said.

The EPA was founded in the early 1970's at a time of heightened concern over deteriorating water and air quality. Since then, the agency has carried out landmark federal environmental protection laws to prevent water pollution, protect air quality and limit toxic substances from damaging natural resources or endangering people.

Two professors presented alternative views in testimony before the panel: Edward J. Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts, and Robert Hahn, a senior policy scholar at the Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy.

Calabrese praised the transparency rule, saying it would provide “scientific and administrative accountability.” Yet, he said, it does not go far enough, calling for the rule to require the public release of all data that the EPA considered during any rule-making process, even assumptions later rejected and the reasons why. He stated particular scorn for the EPA’s risk-assessment model, saying it led to flawed assessment of the human and ecological risks of radiation.

Hahn also endorsed the transparency rule’s call for public access to the EPA’s scientific models used in its rule-making process, as well as scientific data upon which regulations were drawn. He took issue with the notion that the transparency rule would suppress scientific research. Instead, he said the rule would improve evidence-based decision making in government and should be applied across all federal agencies.

In contrast, Holt said accepted scientific procedures clearly outline how results can be tested and outcomes verified without the release of raw data. Public disclosure of data can violate federal laws that protect confidentiality pledges made to study participants and underlying proprietary data collected for private-sector generated research.

Holt also shared concerns being raised by federal agencies. The Department of Defense has called the transparency rule “problematic,” and the EPA’s office that regulates chemicals said the transparency rule “would be incredibly burdensome, not practical” and would risk jeopardizing how the agency evaluates the safety of existing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, Holt said.

“I recommend you scrap these initiatives and work with the scientific community and other stakeholders to find a way to increase – not decrease – the use of science in the regulatory process,” Holt said.

[Associated image: steheap/Adobe Stock]



Anne Q. Hoy

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