On the EPA's New 'Secret Science' Policy, Republicans and Democrats Both Profess a Fear of Politicized Science

Scott Pruitt's proposed policy to require that data and methods behind scientific studies be made publicly available has left Democrats in Congress rankled.
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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on April 26th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on April 26th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt spent more than five hours answering questions on Thursday from Congress about his recent spending and ethics controversies. One topic lawmakers kept returning to: A proposed EPA policy, which Pruitt announced Tuesday, that would require that, whenever scientific studies are used to justify "significant regulatory actions," the data and methods be made publicly available. "This proposal will help ensure that EPA is pursuing its mission of protecting public health and the environment in a manner that the public can trust and understand," reads the policy, which has been submitted for public comment.

Democratic members of Congress generally voiced their opposition to the new policy during the testimony, while many Republican members supported it. Yet both sides used the same line of reasoning to argue for their positions: Both said they feared the politicization of science. "I've been through this with the tobacco industry," Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) said at one point. "I think I have a good handle on what's going on." Tobacco companies famously cast doubt on the research showing secondhand smoke is dangerous by arguing it wasn't strong enough.

Meanwhile, Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) agreed with Pruitt's characterization of the policy as a move toward "transparency" in EPA science. "Without transparency, how do you know whether it's good science or bad science?" Simpson said. "Good science is the science that I agree with; bad science is that science which is on the other side on the aisle, I guess. That's no way to do it."

In this case, scientists themselves tend to support the Democrats' side, and dozens of science organizations have come out against the new EPA policy. Many health studies are bound by confidentiality agreements that forbid researchers from sharing their data, as Science reports. As a result, the policy could bar some of the most important public-health research from being used by the EPA, experts fear.

The text of Pruitt's new policy argues that it's possible to redact the data to protect study volunteers' identities and to address other privacy concerns, such as the proprietary information that companies sometimes submit to the EPA for rule-making. But, depending on how many studies Pruitt wants to make transparent in this manner, it may be more work than he's bargaining for. A Congressional Budget Office analysis about a similar rule, which was proposed in Congress in 2015 but didn't pass, found that properly protecting private data would cost the EPA $250 million a year during its first few years. Such an amount would make up 4 percent of Pruitt's entire proposed budget for the fiscal year 2019.