The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency broke with four decades of practice Tuesday and proposed limits on the science used to develop policies protecting public health and the environment.
The measure, backed by conservatives and some advisers to President Donald Trump who have warned of “junk science,” would prevent the EPA from considering scientific research unless all methodological, technical and other information is publicly available. But critics fear the move would exclude such research as public-health studies containing anonymized patient data.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, speaking in the agency’s Rachel Carson green room, said before signing the proposal that it addresses what he characterized as a deficit of transparency in the federal rule-making process.
"I’ve found sometimes that common sense is not too common at the agency," Pruitt said, adding that he has tried to eliminate conflicts of interest among EPA-funded researchers advising the agency. He said he is attacking the issue with the strongest means at his disposal: "This is not a policy. This is not a memo. This is a proposed rule."
Seven Democratic senators wrote Pruitt a letter Tuesday saying that the policy, which will have a 30-day public comment period, is probably illegal. Led by Delaware’s Tom Carper, the lawmakers requested more information about the proposal, which they say would direct the agency to ignore the "best available science," a court-backed standard for ensuring regulators consider evidence.
"Your proposed new policy likely violates several laws with which EPA must comply as the agency writes rules to protect our air, water and land from harmful pollution," they wrote.
Opponents charge that Pruitt is offering an antidote—transparency—to what are global, well-functioning, time-tested practices for conducting science.
“Don’t be fooled by this talk of transparency. He and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the EPA from using the best available science,” wrote Gina McCarthy, Pruitt’s predecessor at EPA, and former Acting Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe in a New York Times op-ed on March 26.
“It’s a perfect catch-22,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy, said. “You must protect the public health, but you can’t use public-health science to do it. Therefore, you don’t protect the public health,” he said.
Pruitt’s proposal is not the first time Republicans have put such a policy forward. The most recent legislative attempt was the HONEST Act, which was sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith of Texas and passed the House in March 2017. The previous version, the EPA Secret Science Reform Act of 2015, would have cost the EPA $250 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“For far too long EPA’s research and analysis has been highly questionable and often unverifiable. Sadly, this flawed, politically motivated research has played a key role in directing EPA’s polices and regulations for many years,” said Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media, and honorary chairman of Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity.
Nearly 1,000 scientists, led by former EPA researchers, on Monday issued a letter calling Pruitt’s and like-minded lawmakers’ push for better reproducibility and transparency in science “phony issues that weaponize ‘transparency’ to facilitate political interference in science-based decision-making.”
A draft white paper by the Environmental Protection Network, a group of former agency employees, said that the policy would damage federal programs that control pesticides and toxic chemicals, clean up Superfund sites and reduce air pollution. "Such a policy would be illegal," they write.
The science policy shift comes at a time of increasing scrutiny for Pruitt, who has drawn attention for removing EPA-funded scientists from advisory panels while leaving in place industry executives who benefit from lighter regulation, for travel and real-estate choices and for building a private booth in his office that the General Accountability Office found was in violation of spending laws.
Stephan Lewandowsky, a University of Bristol cognitive psychologist, has said that the phrase "secret science" was coined two decades ago to discredit research linking health risks from smoking. A policy memo to a tobacco executive from 1996, reported by The Intercept last year, laid out a strategy "to construct explicit procedural hurdles" for the agency’s scientific reports.
Steve Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, a website that criticizes what he calls the misuse of science by special interests. Milloy wrote in March that he has worked on the topic for more than 20 years. Before Pruitt’s announcement, a spokesman for Milloy issued a release emphasizing his influence in debates.
"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," according to the statement.