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Scientific, Medical, Academic Groups Urge EPA to Drop ‘Transparency’ Rule

Scientific organizations say EPA’s proposed ‘transparency’ rule threatens to limit access to premium science necessary for the agency to carryout is mission. | Stan Leary/UGA CAES/Extension Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Sixty-nine prominent, multidisciplinary scientific, medical and academic organizations are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a proposed rule that would deny the agency tasked with protecting human health and the environment access to “the best available science in its policymaking,” according to a statement issued on July 16.

“If EPA excludes studies because the data cannot be made public, people may be exposed to real harm,” the statement said. “The result would be decisions affecting millions based on inadequate information that fails to include well-supported studies by expert scientists. These efforts are misguided and will not improve the quality of science used by EPA nor allow the agency to fulfill its mandate.”

The statement added, “For the sake of the country’s health, EPA must not restrict this research.”

The statement was issued at the same time the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s CEO Rush Holt sent a letter to EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlining his opposition to the proposed “transparency” rule. Holt urged the agency to withdraw the rule and convene an independent scientific organization to examine the rule’s impact on the agency’s ability to access top-grade scientific research.

EPA’s ability to rely upon premium scientific research in formulating public policies would be weakened and the regulation would send a “chilling message to the general public and the scientific community that the agency would restrict the use of science in its decisions,” stated Holt’s letter.

The rule, announced on April 24 by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, would block EPA from using any scientific research that is based on underlying data not publicly available or made available in a manner that does not allow its findings and methods to be reproduced.

The standard could exclude multiple, reputable scientific studies founded on epidemiological data that include information from study subjects, particularly patients, requiring confidentiality or private-sector generated research built on underlying data considered proprietary. Such an approach would reduce the pool of research available to EPA policymakers, a development “that will yield distorted results,” Holt said.

“AAAS is very concerned that EPA’s proposed rule will prevent the use of the best available scientific studies in setting critical public health and environmental policies in cases where the underlying data cannot or should not be made publicly available. If put into practice, the proposed rule will prohibit the agency from using a wide swath of high-quality, past and present scientific research,” Holt noted.

The letter debunked prior claims that protecting the privacy of study subjects represent a form of “secret science,” pointing out that such data are often drawn from confidential and private medical records protected under federal law, cited as permissible under federal regulations and that scientific procedures allow independent scientists to have limited access to raw data to validate scientific findings. Such facts, Holt said, “negate the need for this proposed rule.”

Holt’s position and that of the scientific groups mirror a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In the case questioning whether EPA should require disclosure of underlying data on which regulations are based, the court ruled against disclosure of confidential data, stating that such a move would be “impractical and unnecessary.” The ruling could lead to legal challenges should EPA move forward in implementing the regulation.

On July 17, a public hearing is being held on the proposed regulation, a meeting EPA scheduled after the original public comment period was extended, leaving the public comment period open until August 16 – a gesture AAAS applauded.

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

In a statement issued on April 20, Holt raised earlier questions about the impact of the proposed rule on the scientific enterprise and the integrity of public policymaking.

The proposed regulation echoes provisions outlined in legislation known as the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or “HONEST Act,” long championed by Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

On Feb. 7, 2017, Holt testified before the House science committee in opposition to an earlier version of the HONEST Act, known as the Secret Science Reform Act, saying political efforts to interfere with the way science is practiced would make the United States less attractive to the world’s brightest minds and stifle the nation’s scientific progress.

[Associated image: NRDC/Flickr CC BY 2.0.]