Energy & Environment

EPA revamp of ‘secret science’ rule will keep limiting research, scientists say

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The offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) walked back a component of one its most controversial proposals Tuesday, weakening an effort that would have restricted the agency from considering scientific studies that don’t make their underlying data public.

But the tweaks are not garnering support from the scientific community, as it expands the 2018 proposal in other ways.

The so-called “secret science” proposal, a nickname given when it was first pushed by former Administrator Scott Pruitt, spurred more than 600,000 comments, many of them critical of the agency for penning policy that would block consideration of some landmark public health research. 

The administration has argued the rule is necessary for transparency, but it has struggled with how to offer a workaround for key studies that wouldn’t be able to share their data publicly without exposing subjects’ personal information.

The Tuesday update doesn’t abandon the policy’s underlying goal, but rather than exclude some research entirely, the agency would now give preference to studies with public data.

“Other things being equal, the agency will give greater consideration to studies where the underlying data and models are available in a manner sufficient for independent validation,” EPA wrote in the new proposal. 

But the newest version of the rule would also apply this standard more broadly, covering an even wider variety of scientific research. It also expands its scope, putting the “secret science” principles in practice not just when EPA weigh a new regulation but also in other agency activities.

Betsy Southerland, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration, said those features make the proposal worse overall by expanding its reach. 

Scientists also argue it will still favor certain research and give the administration the political power to ignore studies that conflict with their policy goals.

“They are basically going to say the studies where the data is publicly available are better than studies where the data isn’t publicly available, irrespective of how good and important the science and the evidence is,” said Andrew Rosenberg with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It’s totally not scientific and nonsensical.”

Scientists argue underlying data isn’t necessary to vet a study. Peers instead review the basic methods and statistics to see if the results support any conclusions that were drawn.

The new hierarchy would downplay research into the effects of chemicals and pollutants on humans, while industry-funded studies might open their data in order to give a boost to their work.

“Think of this in the context of coronavirus,” Rosenberg said. “Can you imagine data being the most important thing or do you want scientific research that is robust?”

EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board reviewed its earlier proposal in December, reiterating “concerns about the scientific and technical challenges and feasibility of implementing some requirements,” while other key considerations were “omitted from the proposal or presented without analysis.”

Tags Scott Pruitt secret science

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