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ICYMI: Why We’re Ending the EPA’s Reliance on Secret Science

The agency has long made decisions without allowing the public to scrutinize our underlying data.

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ICYMI: Why We’re Ending the EPA’s Reliance on Secret Science

The agency has long made decisions without allowing the public to scrutinize our underlying data.

Andrew Wheeler 
The Wall Street Journal
January 4, 2021

The task of science is one of test and retest, analysis and comparison, over and over. It is slow and careful work, done in the open. Only rarely has science benefited from secrecy, and that is usually for reasons of national security. The geniuses of the Manhattan Project who built the atomic bomb, the mavericks of Cape Canaveral who sent men to the moon, these giants did their work behind high walls, and for good reason. 

But the work of the Environmental Protection Agency—to protect human health and the environment—shouldn’t be exempt from public scrutiny. This is why we are promulgating a rule to make the agency’s scientific processes more transparent.

Too often Congress shirks its responsibility and defers important decisions to regulatory agencies. These regulators then invoke science to justify their actions, often without letting the public study the underlying data. Part of transparency is making sure the public knows what the agency bases its decisions on. When agencies defer to experts in private without review from citizens, distinctions get flattened and the testing and deliberation of science is precluded. 

Our rule will prioritize transparency and increase opportunities for the public to access the “dose-response” data that underlie significant regulations and influential scientific information. Dose-response data explain the relationship between the amount of a chemical or pollutant and its effect on human health and the environment—and are the foundation of the EPA’s regulations. If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government.

Transparency is a defense of, not an attack on, the important work done by career scientists at the EPA, along with their colleagues at research institutions around the country. Increasing polarization around scientific questions stems in part from too many public policy debates setting science in a category apart from normal discussion or standards. By shining light on the science we use in decisions, we are helping to restore trust in government. We want the EPA to be able to say, “you can check our work.” 

The rule-making process is itself transparent. This rule-making is the result of several years of work and two separate public comment periods, making this final rule a better product. 

Some special interests have demagogued the rule, calling it an attack on privacy that would weaken the science used by the EPA and politicize public health studies. Critics in the media appear to prefer it when regulators feed them conclusions, instead of analyzing the underlying data themselves. 

This rule is not a stick for forcing scientists to choose between respecting the privacy and rights of their study participants and submitting their work for consideration. No private information will be released as a result of this rule. We can verify results with independent review and still protect confidential and personal information. Our rule won’t allow administrators to cherry pick research to derive politically helpful results. It won’t categorically exclude any scientific work from EPA use. We don’t seek to limit anyone’s ability to conduct sound science. 

Transparency has been a guiding principle at the EPA for 50 years. Administrator William Ruckelshaus issued his famous “Fishbowl Memo” in 1983. This memo demanded that EPA employees act in the open and “ensure that the basis for the Agency’s decision[s] appears in the record.” Ruckelshaus knew the credibility of a regulator depended on clear communication with the public. 

Transparency knows no political ideology. My Democratic predecessors often appealed to its importance. In 2014, the Obama administration’s Gina McCarthy reassured the National Academy of Sciences that, “In everything we do—EPA relies on transparency, on rigorous peer review, and on robust, meaningful public comment.” This final regulation does just that. Please read the rule before you reflexively repeat tired misinformation or make another’s interpretation of it your own. 

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