The Trump administration is proposing a rule that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from relying on research when crafting regulations unless the underlying data is publicly available. This is a problem because the data in studies showing how pollution harms people’s health often includes individuals’ confidential personal information — including medical records that are protected by privacy law. Without access to such data, the EPA would not be able to use the best available science when writing rules to ensure clean air and water.
The proposal is the Trump administration’s latest assault on science-based policymaking, especially when it comes to the environment. Fortunately, a bill gaining bipartisan momentum in Congress would protect objective government research: the Scientific Integrity Act. The measure was just endorsed by the Brennan Center’s bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy, a group of policy experts and former government officials led by former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
The Trump administration’s new proposal flies in the face of longstanding norms that ensure the critical role science plays in policymaking. It’s no wonder, then, that there is a long list of public health and medical groups that oppose it. The removal of critical sources of scientific information from the regulatory process has the potential to undermine the effectiveness of government policy and threaten Americans’ health and safety, in turn reducing public trust in government.
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An earlier version of the EPA’s proposed rule, which would have applied only to “dose-response” studies in which levels of toxicity are studied in animals or humans, was introduced in 2018. This time around, the rule is broader in scope, requiring access to raw data for nearly all studies the EPA considers. It also appears that the proposed rule would apply retroactively, meaning the EPA could cast aside regulations that are already in effect because they were based on epidemiological data that cannot be made publicly available due to patient privacy protections.
In a recent report, our Task Force details the 2018 version of the proposed rule and many other attacks on independent government science by the current and previous administrations. The report outlines a series of legislative reforms aimed at stopping the sidelining of science in policymaking. Among them, the Task Force calls for legislation to establish scientific integrity standards and guarantee that the scientific process at federal agencies be free from politics, ideology, and financial conflicts of interest.
The Task Force also proposes that Congress require disclosure of the expert analysis that underlies agency rulemaking as a mechanism to ensure that regulations are based on science and that science is not manipulated for political reasons. The Task Force recommends the codification of several additional protections for government researchers to foster an environment in which they can perform their best work, pursuant to accepted professional standards of objectivity and empiricism.
Additionally, the Task Force recommends that completed, peer-reviewed government research — not the raw data underlying that research — be proactively disclosed in order to ensure that the scientific community and the general public have access to it. Such safeguards are critical to ensure the proper role of science in policymaking.
Congress is heeding the call to action. Less than two days after news of the EPA’s new proposed rule broke, the House Science Committee held a hearing about it. As mentioned during the hearing, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and the Department of Defense are among the ranks of entities and experts expressing concern with the agency’s plan.
None of the independent scientific expert witnesses who testified during the hearing — including those called by both the majority and the minority — were supportive of the EPA rule. As Dr. Mary B. Rice of the American Thoracic Society testified, there is a history of industry lobbyists using terms like “transparency” and “reproducibility” to push for policies that stop the use of science that is inconvenient to their clients’ financial interests. During his questioning of the EPA’s representative, a senior career official, Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) told her, “None of this assault on science happens if people in your shoes stand up. If and when you stand up, we’ve got your back.”
Congress is taking further action to protect government research and ensure that policymaking is based on objective science. The Scientific Integrity Act, which has both Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, was voted out of the House Science Committee with bipartisan support last month. It contains many provisions in line with the legislative proposals in the Task Force’s report. For example, it would require agencies to have scientific integrity policies and mandate across-the-board scientific integrity standards. It would also require agencies to have appropriate rules, procedures, and safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of the scientific process.
The EPA’s mission is to protect human and environmental health. It is dangerous to undermine the scientific basis of agency regulations, particularly when Americans’ well-being and safety are at stake. The Scientific Integrity Act will protect against such abuse, and the House and Senate should pass it without delay.