In an effort to be more “transparent”, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt proposed a new rule Tuesday that would essentially eliminate decades of scientific studies used to inform regulatory decisions and policy-making.
The rule requires raw data to be released with any research used to write regulation, which could discount any research that includes confidential medical information and slow down the rule-making process by forcing scientific replication.
Any study used by the agency will be required to use data that is publicly available, as reported by the Washington Post. In many cases, this data is typically anonymous and includes personal health information protected by confidentiality agreements between study participants and researchers not readily available to the public. If that information – which could include data on mental health, reproductive health, and family history, among many other things – isn’t available then the study effectively becomes null from the EPA's standpoint.
Pruitt says the rule makes these studies more transparent as it allows anybody to obtain the same information the EPA used to inform its decision. In reality, a qualified scientist could access that same data while maintaining discretion (you know, that whole peer-review concept that’s been around for more than a century).
Nearly 1,000 scientists signed a letter urging the Administrator to reconsider, citing ethical issues and concerns over compromising research.
“[The] EPA can only protect our air and keep us safe from harmful chemicals if it takes full advantage of the wealth of scientific research that is available to the agency,” it reads. Critics say it restricts the agency from using the best available science to make decisions – which some argue is driven by politics and not science – and will limit understanding of environmental impacts on health by blocking traditional, peer-reviewed studies that rely on anonymity.
Previous efforts like the HONEST Act in 2017 and the Secret Science Reform Act in 2015 have moved through Congress and failed, but the rule effectively bypasses Congress.
The text of the proposal says the Administrator can provide exemptions for “confidential business information” on a "case-by-case basis", reports the Huffington Post.
The proposal comes after internal EPA emails were obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings detailing the proposed "Trojan Horse Policy", which were pulled from the website after three days. UCS said the records showed EPA officials were more concerned about the “release of industry trade secrets than they were about sensitive private medical information”. You can read the more than 100 responsive records here.
It's not immediately clear when the proposed rule will be published. Generally speaking, the public will have between 30 and 60 days following publication to issue comments for consideration by the agency.