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EPA's independent science board says 'secret science' proposal may 'reduce scientific integrity'

EPA's independent science board says 'secret science' proposal may 'reduce scientific integrity'
© Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent board of science advisers had harsh words for an agency plan to limit the types of studies it considers when crafting regulations, saying the EPA had failed to justify the need for the policy.

The policy was first proposed by former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley MORE in 2018 to battle “secret science.” He argued that in order to increase transparency, the agency should limit consideration of studies that don’t share their underlying data.

But the agency’s own Science Advisory Board (SAB), in a review of the proposal released Tuesday, said it has “concerns about the scientific and technical challenges of implementing” a rule the EPA has not proved is necessary.

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There is minimal justification provided in the proposed rule for why existing procedures and norms utilized across the U.S. scientific community, including the federal government, are inadequate, and how the proposed rule will improve transparency and the scientific integrity of the regulatory outcomes in an effective and efficient manner,” the SAB wrote in its report.

“It is plausible that in some situations, the proposed rule will decrease efficiency and reduce scientific integrity,” it added.

The Trump administration has appointed a significant portion of those on the SAB, which traditionally has included around 40 of the nation’s top scientists. Over the past several months, the board has issued a number of reviews critical of EPA policy.

"The American public has the right to know what scientific studies underline the agency’s regulatory decisions," EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate MORE said in a release accompanying the review while thanking the independent board for "recognizing the importance of the rulemaking." 

The SAB’s review is consistent with longstanding criticism of the proposal, as science and medical groups have argued it will lead the EPA to ignore important public health research that must protect the privacy of human subjects.

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“Over my career, I’ve reviewed hundreds of studies and papers. You don't review the raw data, you review the basic methods and statistics and results and see if the results support any conclusions that were drawn,” Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists previously told The Hill.

The board’s review follows an update to the proposal issued by the agency in March that expanded the scope of the rule. Rather than blocking some research entirely, it now gives preference to studies with public data.

But even with those tweaks, the proposal doesn’t address many of the underlying issues highlighted by critics.

It still doesn’t offer a clear picture of what qualifies as data, experts say, nor has the EPA sorted out the complications with protecting the private data used in studies — including personally identifiable information as well as confidential business information.

The SAB lists seven factors the agency still needs to resolve to protect privacy.

“There are legitimate legal, ethical, professional and financial reasons why researchers may be unable or unwilling to fully share ‘data’ - including statutes protecting participant privacy, experimental protocols assuring confidentiality of data for human subjects, and (for past studies) issues related to degradation and custody of data,” the board wrote.

“Although the proposed rule suggests that privacy and confidentiality issues can be addressed through anonymization or de-identification, this is not always the case even de-identified datasets present significant risks of re-identification given modern techniques for combining these datasets with other sources of individual information,” it added.

The personal data that risks being exposed is often part of public health research, and the SAB said subjects who only agreed to work with a limited number of researchers deserve to have their privacy respected.

The policy allows the EPA administrator to make exceptions for certain studies, but the SAB said even that could prove problematic.

The administrator needs clearer guidance on when those exceptions can be granted, the SAB said, or the agency “could allow systematic bias to be introduced with no easy remedy.”

“Without pre-defined criteria for such waivers, a case-by-case waiver may create concerns about inappropriate exclusion of scientifically important studies, the board wrote.