The E.P.A. Says It Wants Research Transparency. Scientists See an Attack on Science.

• Mar 26, 2018

Lisa Freidman, The New York Times

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a major change to the way it assesses scientific work, a move that would severely restrict the research available to it when writing environmental regulations.

Under the proposed policy, the agency would no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and industry groups to examine. As a result, regulators crafting future rules would quite likely find themselves restricted from using some of the most consequential environmental research of recent decades, such as studies linking air pollution to premature deaths or work that measures human exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.

The reason: These fields of research often require personal health information for thousands of individuals, who typically agree to participate only if the details of their lives are kept confidential.

The proposed new policy — the details of which are still being worked out — is championed by the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has argued that releasing the raw data would let others test the scientific findings more thoroughly. “Mr. Pruitt believes that Americans deserve transparency,” said Liz Bowman, an E.P.A. spokeswoman.

Critics, though, say that Mr. Pruitt’s goal is not academic rigor, but to undermine much of the science that underpins modern environmental regulations governing clean water and clean air. Restricting the application of established science when crafting new E.P.A. rules could make it easier to weaken or repeal existing health regulations, these people say.

The proposal is “cloaked in all of these buzzwords, in all of the positive things that we want to be for: ‘science,’ ‘transparency,’” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, an independent blog that monitors scientific journals and exposes errors and misconduct. While Dr. Oransky said he agreed that it was critical to hold the scientific process accountable, he said he believed Mr. Pruitt’s intent was to inject doubt into areas of public health where none exists. “Data he doesn’t like will get disqualified,” Dr. Oransky said.

The pending E.P.A. policy would have implications for much of what the agency touches, whether it is new rules addressing climate change or regulations for pesticides and protecting children from lead paint.

“This affects every aspect of environmental protection in the United States,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health under President Barack Obama. Mr. Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University, called the plan “weaponized transparency.”

Opponents and supporters agree that the proposed new policy has its roots in the fossil fuel industry’s opposition to a groundbreaking 1993 Harvard University study that definitively linked polluted air to premature deaths. The “Six Cities” study, widely considered one of the most influential public health examinations ever conducted, tracked thousands of people for nearly two decades and ultimately formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations.

In that study, which began in the mid-1970s, scientists signed confidentiality agreements so they could track the private medical and occupational histories of more than 22,000 individuals in six cities around the country. They combined that personal data with home air-quality data in order to study the link between chronic exposure to air pollution and mortality.

Academics aren’t typically required to turn over such private data when submitting studies for peer review by other specialists in the field, or for review and publication in scientific journals, which is the traditional way that this kind of research is evaluated. If academics were to turn over the raw data to be made available for public review, the agency would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a federal estimate, to redact private information.

The bottom line, critics say, is that if the E.P.A. is limited to considering only studies in which the data is publicly available, the agency will have a narrower and incomplete body of research to draw on when considering regulations. “It sends a pretty chilling message to scientists that their work can’t be used or won’t be used,” said Sean Gallagher, a government relations officer with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit science advocacy organization.

Mr. Pruitt laid out his plans for the new transparency policy in an interview last week with The Daily Caller, a conservative news site. The proposal is based on legislation named the Honest and Open New E.P.A. Science Treatment Act, also known as the Honest Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican. The bill has failed to gain support in Congress for years despite having the support of the energy, manufacturing and chemical industries.

That legislation aimed to preclude the E.P.A. from using any studies that could not be independently reproduced. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign finance data, versions of the bill have received support from Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy, Koch Industries and the American Chemistry Council, which provides policy and research for major chemical companies including Arkema, DuPont and Monsanto.

Mr. Smith, the sponsor of the stalled Congressional legislation, applauded the E.P.A.’s proposed move. “Our citizens have a right to see the data that the E.P.A. says justifies their regulations,” he said in a statement. He has argued that E.P.A. regulations in the past were justified by data that was impossible to verify independently.

Industry lobbyists who welcome the proposed changes agreed with that assessment. “Peer reviews, and reviews in general, can tell you what you want them to tell you, depending on who is in charge of the department,” said Colin Woodall, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Opponents of the proposed E.P.A. policy say the effort all comes back to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long frustration over the Six Cities study and a related one sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Those studies, which have been independently evaluated and have had their findings confirmed, underpinned the first Clean Air Act regulations on fine particulate matter. Based on the research, the E.P.A. in 1997 estimated the rule would prevent 15,000 premature deaths annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of asthma and bronchitis.

“They didn’t like the regulation, so they tried to attack the science underlying the regulation,” said Mr. Gallagher of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He said the demand for transparency was in fact an effort to undermine scientific independence. “It has become very clear to us that this is not about science. This is a means to an end.”

Since taking the helm of the E.P.A., Mr. Pruitt has clashed with the scientific community several times.

In October, the agency forbade three agency scientists from speaking about climate change at a conference on the health of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Shortly after that, Mr. Pruitt ruled that scientists who receive E.PA. grants would no longer be allowed to serve on the agency’s advisory boards, a move that effectively blocked more than a dozen academic researchers from providing expertise about the latest science as the E.P.A. considered regulations. Last year, more than 200 scientists left the agency, reflecting what many have described as frustration over Mr. Pruitt and President Donald Trump’s policies.

Late last year, Mr. Pruitt also proposed holding public debates on the merits of scientific findings that indicate human activity is responsible for climate change — research that is widely accepted within the scientific community. That plan was thwarted by John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff.


You can read the full article by Lisa Friedman here

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