May 24, 2018

Secret Science – Insight into a Misleading Policy

Posted by Annika Deurlington

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, signed a draft policy that would change how the agency uses science in decision-making. This proposed policy would exclude scientific information from consideration during the drafting of regulations if the research cannot be validated by the public.

What would be so wrong with making data public? Transparency sounds like a good thing, but this would be transparency in name only – the implications of this policy would be the exclusion of the best available science from decision-making.

This draft policy is based on the Secret Science Reform Act sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith and its more recent version, the HONEST Act. The bills – which passed the House, but not the Senate – have received significant opposition from scientific organizations, including the scientific community.

Some of the notable objections to the policy include:

  1. The policy would exclude vital research. The proposed rule would place restrictions on the use of science by requiring that all scientific information underlying a “significant rule” be able to be validated by the public for it to be used in decision-making, potentially excluding scientific information stemming from datasets that are highly detailed, contain personal information, or were from studies conducted years ago and it is not feasible to make the underlying data publicly available.
  2. The draft policy gives the EPA Administrator broad authority to decide which scientific information will be considered in decision-making. Allowing the Administrator to exempt studies from consideration rather than requiring that the agency use the best available science is concerning and lends to the politicization of science. The agency should evaluate science on its merit when making policy decisions based on science – especially health-based regulations.
  3. The proposed rule is vague. It lacks a concerning amount of detail about how the rule would be implemented. For example, would the rule apply to past decisions or only future decisions made by the agency? How would EPA publish the scientific information and ensure that confidential information is redacted? Though the rule is only a proposal, these are important details that should be addressed.
  4. The proposed rule was drafted and published without sufficient input from the science community. Not only does the draft policy incorrectly cite policies at scientific journals, recent reports indicate that the agency failed to engage the EPA’s Science Advisory Board to help inform how the policy would be drafted and implemented. As the rule would substantially change the use of science in decision-making, insight from the science community is essential to ensuring a sound policy.

AGU, along with other scientific organizations, has been engaging in this process. AGU sent a letter to EPA urging the Administrator to extend the comment period beyond the original 30 days to give the scientific community and the public broadly a sufficient amount of time to provide substantive feedback.

In response to these efforts, EPA announced today that the agency will extend the comment period through 16 August. Additionally, they will hold a public hearing in Washington DC on 17 July.

Don’t let this opportunity to make an impact pass you by. Take a few minutes to submit a comment before the deadline on 16 August. It’s easy. You can submit directly through the website or attach a document outlining your suggestions and concerns. If you’re looking for guidance about how to craft and submit a comment, check out this toolkit.