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EPA’s Latest Transparency Rule Blunts the Role of Science in Policymaking

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A pending EPA rule would allow the agency to turn aside leading scientific research and instead grant preference to lesser work, a plan AAAS and scientific communities say will diminish the best research. | Kristina - stock.adobe.com

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and leading scientific, engineering and higher education organizations are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to nullify pending 2018 regulatory and follow-up proposals that would undermine the ability of scientific evidence to inform the agency’s mission to protect the environment and the health of the American public.

In a formal comment filed in response to the latest EPA proposal, AAAS and concerned signatories said the latest proposal, known as a “supplemental,” to the pending 2018 rule “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” would provide EPA with the option to exclude the best available science from informing EPA regulations, making it difficult for the agency to fulfill its mission to protect environmental and human health.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has opened the door for a U.S. government agency to ignore scientific evidence in its decision-making, which we fear will endanger the health of millions of Americans,” said Sudip Parikh, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals in a statement issued May 18. “At a time when the federal government should be focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EPA is pushing forward an unnecessary rule that puts our health at greater risk and ignores overwhelming criticism from scientists, doctors, and public health professionals, including its own Scientific Advisory Board.” 

The scientific community’s formal comment echoed Parikh’s views: “We strongly believe the proposed rule and supplemental would diminish the critical role of scientific evidence in decisions that impact the health of Americans. Simply put, excluding the best available science, as this proposed rule would do, puts public health and the environment at risk. We strongly request the EPA rescind this proposal in its entirety.”

“That EPA would risk prohibiting or severely limiting such evidence and research sends a chilling message to the scientific community and risks breaching the confidence of the American public on whether they can trust EPA decisions to protect their health,” the comment about the proposed rule and supplemental said.

The supplemental did propose a step to address previous issues raised by AAAS and other concerned organizations in earlier versions of the proposal that called for the underlying scientific data in research studies be made publicly available before EPA could use such studies. Instead, the supplemental would permit EPA to use scientific studies without first publicly releasing underlying research if “authorized researchers” validated the study’s underlying data after being given access to the otherwise restricted material, according to the comment.

Yet, the introduction of “authorized researchers” in the supplemental raises several complications including   an unaddressed assumption that research scientists and institutions would sign on to the plan. The comment also points out that the EPA proposal does not explain how contractual agreements researchers and their institutions often hold to protect the privacy rights of research subjects would be handled.

The supplemental clears the way for EPA to turn aside leading scientific research and instead grant preference to lesser studies based on underlying data that has been publicly released, a point AAAS and other comment signatories said would sideline the nation’s very best research often drawn from private medical, proprietary business, and other personally identifiable data that cannot legally be publicly released.

In addition, the supplemental would expand EPA’s reach to include “any science the agency reasonably can determine will, or does have, a clear and substantial impact on important public policies or private sector decisions,” expanding the agency’s scope beyond the science underlying regulations to include science impacting “all data and models,” the comment states.

Such a change is likely to render EPA unable “to cite important studies on topics relating to the levels of contaminants in water, air and land; epidemiological studies that describe clinical markers of exposure or effect; and many other studies that are fundamental in understanding and protecting human health,” stated the comment.

“The original proposed rule and now this supplemental are de facto rejecting credible practices used by the scientific community and replacing them with a non-scientific metric in the evaluation of a study beyond its immediate quality,” the comment states. “As the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board has stated, this decision risks politicizing science by using an unscientific standard to assess the validity of science.”

In further assessing the supplemental and pending rule, Parikh said, “The EPA rule would introduce an untested system for analyzing data and allow the agency to ignore the best available science when setting regulations.”

From the moment the proposal first emerged in 2018, AAAS has repeatedly brought such scientific perspectives to its assessments of the EPA proposals, stressing that transparency, openness, and peer review are essential ingredients of the scientific process.

Sudip Parikh is AAAS' chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. | Andy DelGiudice

AAAS has long spoken out against the versions of the rule and its earlier legislative form first known as the Secret Science Act, then recast as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act, before eventually finding its way as the proposed EPA rule, first known as the “Transparency Rule,” and then renamed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The proposal also has drawn the concern of many scientific, medical and academic organizations, including a joint response on April 30, 2018 from editors of leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Science, who said the rule, if enacted, would limit access to scientific findings needed by policymakers drafting regulations governing everything from air quality to clean water and land contamination.

“Let’s call this rule what it is: a deliberate attempt to exclude scientific evidence from the policymaking process,” said Parikh. “The current COVID-19 pandemic is showing us in real time the necessity of scientific expertise in decision-making.”

 

Author

Anne Q. Hoy

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