You--Not Just Science--Are Under Attack

How could all of science be under attack, you ask? Major legislation relies oftentimes on large scientific studies. Using data from, say, 100,000 samples would be better than only 100 samples. Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing a rule in the name of transparency that would gut the results of big data by insisting all information in a study be available for reanalysis by others if that study is to have any weight in rulemaking. While that sounds good, the reality would create greater harm.

For example, if a vast study from multiple cities with thousands of participants specifies how smog is bad for your health, under the proposed edict the EPA could entirely disregard that information when making rules about smog emissions if everyone's confidential personal information is not made publicly available.

The EPA says it wants transparency, which is a good thing. However, for any study to have weight in EPA rulemaking the study would need all related information to be open for reanalysis. For example, in a hypothetical study of 100,000 persons, all personal information on the participants would have to be accessible, even where non-disclosure agreements exist between the original scientists and the participants. Not just data relevant to the experiment, but all personal information. And for large older studies where that personal data is no longer known or accessible, EPA can discount the science altogether.

In giving a scenario the proposal states:

EPA may consider a study as pivotal regulatory science if the other aspects of the data or model underlying the study were sufficiently robust. However, because all of the data and models would not be publicly available, EPA may assign lower weight to a study's evidence, findings and conclusions. It is crucial in making robust regulatory decisions that EPA has access to all aspects of data and models if they are to underly pivotal regulatory science. Thus, EPA would reserve the right to place less weight on the studies, to the point of entirely disregarding them , if the data and models underlying pivotal regulatory science are not made available in full to EPA.

That means that recognized ground-breaking discoveries can be dismissed by the EPA if the personal or proprietary component is not available for an ensuing person to access it. What sounds like good science--the opportunity for other scientists to reanalyze data--is in reality a roadblock to using good science. The proposed rule is retroactive, so all scientific data from the past is at risk of dismissal if not in full compliance with the new rule.

The proposed rule has token acknowledgment about privacy concerns. However, the cost to avail publicly the information previously deemed personal or incidental to the findings would preclude the use of a landmark study. How, for example, would you be able to go back twenty years to ask many thousands of people for permission to release their personal information? For the EPA to redact personal information for monumental studies would be prohibitive, costing millions of dollars.

A previous rule change that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt proposed was met by nearly 600,000 comments, mostly opposed to the gutting of science. The current administrator Wheeler, though "a little shocked" by such a strong showing of science-mindfulness, is pressing forward with a more draconian version. An article E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules does a better job than I in explaining the details. I encourage you to read how science--and you--are under assault.

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