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The EPA has finalized a rule that would limit the scope of research that influences policy decisions by the agency. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claims the new rule is aimed to increase transparency and allow the public more insight into what research influences policy.
But the scientific community has called the rule a blatant attempt to clear the way for special interests. With only 14 days until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, many experts believe the move is a part of the Trump Administration’s recent campaign of hail marys.
During his administration, Trump has aggressively rolled back protections for public lands, national parks, and endangered species in the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Yet scientists say this new rule will allow the EPA to revoke protections more efficiently by choosing which scientific evidence they want to use in their regulatory capacity.
This new rule limits the scope of what kind of data a study must provide the EPA to be considered in decision making and would give favor to companies that provide the agency with raw data. Experts have pointed out that raw data have little value to the public, and Andrew Rosenberg, who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy adds that it also doesn’t have much value to other scientists. “As a well-experienced peer reviewer, I very rarely scrutinize raw data,” he said. “Rather, I look at data collection and analysis methods, summary and other statistics and graphics and results and conclusions to determine the validity of a study and the strength of its scientific evidence.”
Other researchers said that this requirement disproportionately affects medical studies. Researchers are often hesitant to hand over patients’ private medical records, and during a global pandemic and a disorganized vaccine rollout, many experts say now is not the time to be tightening restrictions on research. “Because these data can’t be made public, EPA will ignore epidemiological evidence of population-level effects of contaminants, pollution, and other environmental threats,” said Rosenberg.
Wheeler defended the rule, and said, “There is no study that will automatically be cut out from review by the agency,” continuing, “what this new rule would undoubtedly do is provide transparency needed to allow the public the opportunity needed to check our work.” But Thomas Sinks, who previously led the Office of the Science Advisor at the EPA, said that the EPA has never had an issue when it comes to transparency, “there’s no evidence EPA practices secret science. I’m unaware of an example where EPA hasn’t clearly stated what science it is using in its rulemaking.”
Ultimately, Sinks and other scientists worry about the broader implications this policy could have going into a new administration. “I’m mostly concerned about the fact this rule and other actions like this rule are diminishing the efforts and the importance of science and scientists within the federal government,” he said, “that is a dangerous precedent.”
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