Scientists fight Trump EPA 'secret science' proposal to exclude certain research

Scientists fight Trump EPA 'secret science' proposal to exclude certain research
© Greg Nash

Scientists on Tuesday pushed back against a Trump administration proposal that would block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from relying on studies that don’t make their underlying data public.

Critics say the proposal, introduced by former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA moving ahead with science transparency rule by 'early next year' Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections MORE in 2017 to battle what he called "secret science," risks eliminating major studies from consideration as the EPA considers new policies.

Current EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Trump officials formally revoke California emissions waiver | EPA's Wheeler dodges questions about targeting San Francisco over homelessness | 2020 Dems duke it out at second climate forum EPA head dodges questions about environmental action against San Francisco Yang floats nominating Inslee as 'climate czar' MORE had asked the EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) to weigh how the agency could work to deal with the numerous studies that anonymize or withhold sensitive data in order to protect personal information and confidential business information, an issue before the panel on Tuesday.

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“If this is such a good idea, why is it proposed just for EPA rather than as legislation or regulation applying to all health-regulating agencies?” asked Roy Gamse, a former deputy assistant administrator at EPA.

Gamse joined multiple outside scientists using Tuesday's meeting to push the advisory panel to reject the proposal in its entirety.

“Imagine the Food and Drug Administration being forbidden to approve new drugs unless the research justifying their use were subject to these same regulatory prohibitions. ... Drug approvals would likely grind to a halt. As would EPA regulations for air quality standards, hazardous materials exposures, pesticides exposures, drinking water concentrations, etc.,” Gamse said. 

Board members are working to create a tiered approach that might make the EPA’s proposed rule more functional. Studies with particularly sensitive data might be allowed higher levels of protection, such as hiding data behind a password-protected website.

“Many of the SAB members were very supportive regarding the importance of scientific transparency,” a spokesman for the EPA said in a statement to The Hill. “Today we heard a good discussion as the Board grapples with the details of how best to implement this proposed rule. EPA looks forward to getting the final consultation with all these ideas included.”

Some of the board members were indeed supportive of the effort.

Richard Williams, a board member and former economist with the Food and Drug Administration, said the proposal would be needed to avoid poorly performed studies that produce bad statistics.

“This is what this is trying to get after,” Williams said, adding that a tiered system will help the EPA use whatever studies it deems necessary.

Critics say the board has largely been sidelined by the EPA, as it has been asked to review only a narrow piece of the proposal.

The board somewhat rejected that call at its last meeting when it voted to review the proposal more broadly in addition to trying to find ways to deal with personal and business data.

Some have also voiced concerns that the board won’t finish its review of the EPA proposal in time to have an impact on the final rule, which is expected later this year.

“EPA’s reticence to give SAB the answers it needs to evaluate the rule further exemplifies that this rule presents a solution in search of a problem,” Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists said during the meeting’s public comment portion.

“The rule as drafted would waste enormous resources, make data more vulnerable to misuse and exploitation, and make it nearly impossible for the EPA to use the best available science to inform mission-critical decisions. We ask that the EPA fully utilize the SAB and consider its advice on this rule in its entirety,” she said.

Reed said the EPA’s proposal lacks basic information, such as a definition for data or how it could be replicable.

Critics have also raised concerns about the qualifications of those appointed under the Trump administration compared to previous board members. They noted that Pruitt barred scientists from the board if they received EPA grants, calling it a conflict of interest.

A report from the Government Accountability Office found more industry group representation on the board under Trump. It also said the EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates” for the SAB and “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”

Many of the board members on Tuesday questioned how they could even create a system that would allow for use of studies that shield sensitive information. 

“I think the comments made from SAB members really illustrated exactly how messy the proposed rule is. Many of the members have trouble answering the simple charged questions that were proposed without going down rabbit holes on the glaring issues with the rule,” Reed said.