Are proposed EPA rules a move toward transparency or an attack on science?

A proposal by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that aims to limit the scientific research that the agency can use to set rules illustrates a widening rift between Republicans and the scientific community.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attends an arrival ceremony for French President Emmanuel Macron on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.

How publicly accessible does science need to be in order to be reliable?

A proposed rule that could severely limit the scientific studies the Environmental Protection Agency can use when formulating policy is being hailed by some conservatives as an important safeguard to ensure transparency, with the proposal’s author, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, declaring that “the era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end.”

But the proposal’s opponents see it as simply the latest salvo in a growing war on science, one that is eroding the public’s trust in science and undermining policy decisions.

Science, particularly the sort of environmental and public-health science that forms the basis for many of the EPA’s most important regulations, has often stood at the center of controversy. But many observers worry that the politicization of science is on the rise.

“There’s been a concerted effort by some to co-opt terms like ‘transparency’ and push this agenda of rolling back public health and safety policies, and doing so by pretending it’s about transparency,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Earlier this week, the science advocacy nonprofit authored a letter signed by 985 scientists, opposing the rule. “This is clearly a case of politics interfering with science.”

The most recent EPA action, if finalized, would limit the studies the agency considers in formulating rules only to those whose data is publicly available. Many of the scientific studies the EPA has relied upon in the past, when determining rules around air pollution standards or hazardous chemicals, for instance, would not meet this standard, because they often rely on personal health data with guaranteed confidentiality.

Moreover, say critics, insisting on such a standard indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific research is conducted, and would severely limit important sources of research in the future as well as call into question the basis for past regulations.

In environmental health research – where scientists are looking at issues like exposure to pollution, conducted in real-world settings  – perfect, randomized, double-blind clinical studies aren’t possible, notes Bernard Goldstein, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and the EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development in the Reagan Administration. “What you recognize is that there are always going to be blemishes,” says Dr. Goldstein. “But the difference between a blemish and a scar is very significant.” Often, he says, industry demands the raw data in order “to find a blemish and make it into a scar.”

Instead, says Goldstein, what good scientists do is see if they can find the same results when they approach the same issue in different ways.

That was the case with the landmark 1993 Harvard “Six Cities” study, which found a link between particulate pollution and increased mortality. That study paved the way for stronger EPA regulations on fine particulate pollution, but it has also been cited by some EPA critics as what they call “secret science.” It was the subject of controversy in 2013 when Congress subpoenaed the EPA for the study data, and was denied.

What such critiques miss, say Goldstein and others, is that the Harvard findings have been borne out by multiple other studies. The study, and data, were also subject to rigorous review by the Health Effects Institute.

“These are data that have been looked at in exquisite detail,” says Goldstein. “This study has been replicated not only in the US, but all over the world.”

But critics of studies like the Harvard one have welcomed the proposed regulation, claiming that too often, Americans are asked to simply trust scientists, without getting access to the full data.

“Much to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s credit, the Trump EPA has decided to end the use of such ‘secret science’ as a basis for regulatory actions that have harmed our economy, put companies out of business, and harmed consumers,” said Steve Milloy in a statement. Mr. Milloy was a member of Trump’s EPA transition team and has been a longtime critic of the science that has led to more stringent air-pollution regulation.

Environmental law experts, meanwhile, note that to set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, the EPA relies on thousands of studies from all different disciplines, and is required to review those standards every five years.

“It’s one of the most successful regulatory programs in history,” says William Boyd, an environmental law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “The idea that there’s some kind of secret science machine at the EPA that’s been doing this work in the dark is absurd on its face. The idea is really cynical.”

The public’s trust in science is relatively strong, at least compared with trust in other institutional groups such as the news media or business leaders. But over the past several decades, there there has been a “divergence” in terms of which groups trust scientists, says Gordon Gauchat, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who has studied the relationships between science and politics.

In 1974, conservatives with college degrees reported the highest level of trust in science and scientists, compared with other demographics. By 2010, they had the lowest, with the divergence accelerating in the early 1990s.

While it’s impossible to know exactly why the views of educated conservatives shifted, Professor Gauchat says he sees a couple of plausible theories. One is that “increasingly, scientists in universities are associated with the left, if not in actuality, at least in the minds of conservatism....I think it’s more being aware of what the terrain politically is.”

Another theory is that the political polarization on the climate change issue started to erode that trust. “There was this really concerted effort, with money backing it, to challenge the science on it,” says Gauchat.

The most recent EPA action fits into what some scientists see as a broader political attack on science. They’ve been critical, among other things, of Pruitt’s directive barring scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on scientific advisory committees – under the assumption that such scientists might be biased in favor of regulation, regardless of their expertise – while continuing to allow industry scientists to serve on such panels.

Goldstein notes that controversy around scientific findings – especially those that could lead to a significant financial burden on industry – is hardly new. But he sees a marked difference in the intensity and manner of the current administration’s attacks on science.

“Through the years, there has always been turmoil about the EPA’s science-based regulation. People are going to lose,” says Goldstein, who served in the Reagan-era EPA. “And each time there’s been a major issue about [whether] the science is being used appropriately, the EPA has either gone to the National Academy of Sciences or have developed their own expert committee.… Pruitt has never done this.”

The latest proposed regulation is now subject to a 30-day comment period and a stringent bureaucratic process, but if it is finalized, it could be harder to dismantle. While some details are still unclear, it could also be subject to legal challenges.

In particular, if the rule allows for case-by-case exceptions or gives special treatment to industry concerns with confidentiality – allowing companies to keep information about pesticides and other chemicals secret, as they have done in the past, while requiring other forms of data to be made public – there could be a strong “arbitrary and capricious” legal challenge to the rule, says Professor Boyd. “It runs counter to the idea of more transparency, if that’s what they’re claiming to promote.”

Dan Byers, the vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, praised Pruitt’s proposal as a “critical safeguard to ensure that the data EPA is using is scientifically sound, unbiased, and reliable.” But he says the Chamber does not support extending the principle of transparency to confidential business information.

Scientists, meanwhile, say this latest proposal points to the need for better understanding of the scientific process and how scientists conduct research, undergo peer review, and share information.

“Science is not a political construct or belief system,” says Joanne Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s a process of gathering information in a testable way to expand our knowledge of the world and how things work. And it’s the most reliable pathway for making policies and regulations… We don’t serve our nation well if we use science as the weapon of choice in order to achieve political goals.”

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