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Scott Pruitt Will Restrict EPA's Use of Legitimate Science

The Administrator's “transparency” proposal is a fundamentally flawed Trojan Horse

Administrator Scott Pruitt claims to be worried about "secret science" at EPA, but in reality, he's squashing the science that protects Americans from air, water, and land pollution. (Photo: AP)

The EPA is reportedly on the verge of restricting the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking and I’m livid. This is a move that serves no purpose other than to prevent the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. If Pruitt’s proposal looks anything like House Science Committee Chairman’s HONEST Act or its predecessor the Secret Science Act, we know it will be nonsensical and dangerous for our nation’s ability to use science to protect people.  Those bills required that all raw data, models, code, and other materials from scientific studies be made available to the public before EPA could use it and it had sweeping scope over EPA actions, covering “risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance.”

Here are the top ways EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Trojan horse “transparency” proposal is fundamentally flawed:

It fundamentally misrepresents how science works.

You might not need a refresher on how science works, but it’s clear that Administrator does. Here’s a quick run-down: In order to be published in a scientific journal, research must pass through peer-review where two or three experts familiar with that field will critique the scientific merits of the study. When a study has passed peer review, we know it has met a standard set by scientists in that field.  Federal agencies like the EPA then use that peer-reviewed science in order to issue science-based rules.

Nowhere in this process do decisionmakers need to see raw data that went into studies in order to trust scientific evidence. Scientists conducting the peer review don’t even typically see the raw data of studies. They do not need to. They can look at the methods, design, and results in order to assess the quality of the science. The peer review process—conducted by those with scientific expertise—provides the necessary scrutiny here; the scrutiny of Congress would insert politics into what should be a scientific discussion.

It solves a problem that doesn’t exist.

Let’s be clear. The decision-making process at the EPA is already exhaustingly transparent. There are thousands of pages of documents and hours of phone calls and meetings of scientific experts discussing technical details of those documents—and the public has full access to these discussions! I know. I’ve listened to hours and hours of meetings and read hundreds of pages of documents. I would never say that a problem at the EPA is a lack of access to the details of agency decision making.

For example, the EPA claims that “EPA has primarily relied on two 1990s studies linking fine particulate pollution to premature death. Neither studies have made their data public, but EPA used their findings to justify sweeping air quality regulations.”

This is ludicrous. On the contrary, the latest Integrated Science Assessment for particulate matter (i.e. the summary of the scientific basis for the latest air pollution protections from soot), cites more than 800 studies—including the two studies referenced, which were peer-reviewed and have since been re-assessed to further confirm their scientific validity.

Further, the EPA already painstakingly collects scientific data and other details from the studies that it relies on to make policy decisions. I know because they asked me for it. The EPA’s 2015 decision on a revised ambient ozone standard relied on many studies of ozone pollution and its relationship with health outcomes, including work that I did as a doctoral student at Georgia Tech looking at exposure measurement in ambient air pollutants.

Even though I had conducted the study several years earlier as a graduate student, EPA scientists tracked me down and got me to dig through my files and find the original data that supported the figures and conclusions of my study so I could share it with the agency. If that isn’t dedication to scientific integrity in science-based policy, I don’t know what is.

It wastes taxpayer dollars and adds red tape

Ironically, the bill is directly at odds with the Trump administration’s stated desire to create a more efficient government. It adds unnecessary and burdensome redundancy to the process of keeping clean our air, water, and land. Pruitt is adding red tape to the federal government, not reducing it.

It is also wasting taxpayer dollars. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost the EPA an additional $250 million per year to comply with Chairman Smith’s HONEST Act. But the administration wasn’t even honest about that.  It was revealed that EPA leadership claimed the move would pose no additional burden, burying the comments of EPA staff, who asserted the tremendous cost of implementation and also noted that the bill would threaten EPA expertise, jeopardize personal and confidential business information, and “significantly impede EPA’s ability to protect the health and the environment of Americans.” The greater scientific community backed up this assertion. A letter signed by 23 scientific societies and academic institutions also raised concerns the bill would “constrain the EPA from making a proposal based on the best available science.”

Pruitt is taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook

This was never an honest proposal. Pruitt’s move is just another tactic dreamed up to attack science behind public health protections. In fact, it was first noted in internal documents from the tobacco industry. In a 1996 memo out of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, industry consultant (and later part of the Trump administration’s landing team at EPA), Chris Horner, laid out the “secret science” strategy as a way to fend off tobacco regulations as the science increasingly showed the harms of secondhand smoke.  The goal, he wrote, was “to construct explicit procedural hurdles the agency must follow in issuing scientific reports.” This has never been about transparency in science-based decisionmaking.

It’s dangerous

Administrator Pruitt claims to be worried about “secret science” at EPA, but in reality, he’s squashing the science that protects Americans from air, water, and land pollution. When the EPA can’t rely on scientific evidence to make decisions about public health protections, we are all left in the dark.

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Gretchen Goldman

Gretchen Goldman

Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She holds a PhD and MS in environmental engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a BS in atmospheric science from Cornell University. See Gretchen's full bio. Follow her on Twitter at @GretchenTG.

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