Lawmakers rally to keep Pruitt from transparently restricting science

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Changes to the scientific review process of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed by Administrator Scott Pruitt last year are back in the spotlight. In particular, there is growing concern about the “transparency rule,” — what many have dubbed the “secret science” rule.

The transparency rule specifies the types of scientific evidence that may be used in rulemaking and requires that all scientific and technical information (e.g., data, protocols, computer codes, and models) used by the agency be publicly available online in a form that allows independent analysis and reproduction of results.

{mosads}The transparency rule sounds reasonable, if not desirable, at first pass. However, the required level of disclosure and accessibility often are not achievable, especially within timeframes necessary for decision-making and regulatory activities. As explained in a joint statement from editors of five prestigious scientific journals, not all data can be publicly available. In these cases, reviewers have confidential access to key data and can evaluate the rigor of the study design, analysis, and interpretation of findings — a long-standing scientific norm.


Most worrisome, the transparency rule will prevent use of many public health or large-scale environmental studies, especially in light of laws and responsible research practices protecting the confidentiality of human subjects and private property. In this way, the rule will disproportionately affect public health studies relative to those focused on costs or economic impacts that are less likely to involve human subjects.

For example, confidentiality laws would allow the EPA to disregard the most critical research underlying regulations, such as the 1993 landmark “Six Cities study” that established an association between air pollution and mortality in six cities. Specifically, the Six Cities study followed the health of 8,100 participants over 20 years and found that life expectancy dropped by two-to-three years when individuals in cities were exposed to fine particulate matter (<2.5 microns diameter). A study of nearly 550,000 participants further substantiated that result.

These studies, both bound by confidentiality agreements, provided pivotal scientific evidence to support new air quality standards that save hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness of and concern about the proposed transparency rule. At their recent meeting, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) unanimously voted to review the secret science policy as well as the research underlying regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions and are slated for repeal (e.g., Clean Power Plan, vehicle emissions standards). More than 20 additional speakers representing diverse industries also spoke at the meeting and advocated for full scientific reviews.

A bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress recently urged Pruitt to withdraw the transparency rule. Their letter explains that the rule would limit the scientific research available during the rulemaking process and, in that way, undermine the Agency’s scientific integrity with an “opaque process allowing EPA to selectively suppress scientific evidence without accountability and in the process undermine bedrock environmental laws.”

They also note how the rule is sharply at odds with the transparency it claims to promote by authorizing the EPA administrator to grant exceptions without sharing the rationale or providing opportunity for comment or appeal.

Lawmakers further explained in their letter that the proposed rule would be costly (likely over $250 million annually) and burdensome for EPA and researchers, based on an analysis of expected costs of the similar but defeated Secret Science Reform Act. 

Transparency establishes trust and legitimacy and should underlie public decision-making processes. As former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained to Congress in her nomination hearing, “Transparency is all about letting in and embracing new ideas, new technologies and new approaches. No individual entity or agency, no matter how smart, how old or how experienced, can afford to stop learning.” The proposed transparency rule does just the opposite by restricting the ideas and science available to the EPA.

The development of effective environmental regulations requires strong science. The public now has the opportunity to communicate this point to the EPA during their comment period for the proposed rule that has been extended until August 16, 2018 and/or a public hearing scheduled for July 17, 2018 in Washington.

Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Amanda Rodewald Environment EPA Gina McCarthy Science Scott Pruitt Transparency

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