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Pruitt’s Rule Ending Secret Science is Pro-science, Pro-consumer

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s proposed rule to increase public access to scientific data makes eminent sense, since transparency is a cornerstone of the scientific process. The public should have access to data that agencies use to pass regulations that impose economic burdens and limit consumer choice.

Pruitt modeled this rule after the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act (H.R. 1430, S. 1794), sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). This legislation and the proposed rule are designed to provide greater access to data used to justify significant and costly federal regulations.

According to the most recent Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report on the cost of federal regulations, EPA rules are the most expensive in the federal government, and the agency’s claimed benefits are also the highest. OMB explains “the large estimated benefits of EPA rules” emanate from the EPA air quality program and are “mostly attributable to” reductions in PM2.5, which refers to airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Yet, the agency has never made the key data on PM2.5 available.

One key study with unavailable data is the Harvard University Six Cities Study, which EPA uses to justify very stringent air quality regulations. This 1993 study is a statistical analysis that reported an association between the lifespans of people in six cities and the levels of PM2.5 found in the air. It claims that people who live in cities with higher PM2.5 have a life expectancy that is two to three years shorter than those in cities with lower PM2.5.

Harvard researchers claim the study participants — whose medical information is part of that data — never agreed for their information to be released, even if their names were excluded.

Sound scientific research should be designed so that data can be made available — with the approval of the subjects — without releasing individual identities. But today, many researchers apparently would rather not release data, making it difficult for others to challenge their results. 

This reality has fostered an abundance of scientific mischief, including the propensity for researchers to work the data until it generates a positive finding. What James Mills of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development lamented in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine holds true today: If you torture your data long enough, they will tell you whatever you want to hear.

Researcher John P.A. Ioannidis has demonstrated that most positive associations in scientific literature are false. The scope of this problem is also detailed by the National Association of Scholars in the recent report, The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science. The authors highlight one outrageous case where professor Brian Wansink literally bragged on a blog how he schooled one of his students on how to churn data to generate positive results and get them published.

Efforts are underway among some scientific researchers to address this crisis, and Pruitt’s proposed rule may help. After all, if researchers want their work to be useful to regulators, they will need to start operating more transparently.

 Ironically, left-of-center critics say that transparency requirements are anti-science. One critic warns that the costs associated with compliance are simply too high, pointing to a Congressional Budget Office report that said implementing the HONEST Act would cost $250 million a year, as the EPA would have to devote staff to removing confidential information from data. Even if true, this is a modest amount, given that EPA regulations cost around $394 billion a year, according to estimates developed by Clyde Wayne Crews in his report 10,000 Commandments.

Moreover, EPA has plenty of funds within its $8 billion budget to pay for transparency. Heritage Foundation analyst Diane Katz suggests a number of programs that could easily be cut to save the agency billions of dollars a year.

Activists have also made pleas based on the costs to the industries they seek to regulate, which is another ironic twist. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently released EPA internal e-mails (obtained via Freedom of Information request) that some say indicate the rule will harm business. Their “evidence” is that EPA Deputy Administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Nancy Beck indicated in e-mails that she was concerned about costs to industry and potential challenges with the pesticide and chemical approval processes.

Yet, it appears that Beck simply recommended revisions to a draft version to address such potential concerns. Certainly, it’s reasonable to avoid unnecessary barriers to innovation, but transparency should not be sacrificed because it’s inconvenient. 

In the end, transparency is more likely to reduce the costs for businesses and consumers, who ultimately pay the high costs of misguided regulations.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill