Last month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he wants to severely restrict the research that the EPA can review when writing environmental regulations. Such a policy, he says, would get rid of “secret science” — his words — by prohibiting the use of studies in which the underlying data has not been made public.
In other words, Pruitt, in the guise of promoting transparency, is openly questioning the motives of environmental researchers. Pretty rich coming from a guy who reportedly got a nice housing deal at a condominium linked to a fossil-fuels lobbyist.
The reaction to Pruitt’s proposal has been unsurprising. “Livid” scientists and former EPA officials have condemned the proposal as yet another attempt from Pruitt to benefit industry. They make a good argument: Studies used by the EPA commonly do not reveal their underlying data because the information is pulled from patient records that are confidential by law. Others use industry data that is kept secret for commercial reasons.
But the real shame here is not that Pruitt is planning an attack on science — he has been on that offensive for quite some time. It’s that Pruitt is weaponizing a legitimate academic debate that has been improving scientific research for some time and, addressed properly, could do even more in the future.
To optimists, the digital age has represented a potential Renaissance in science — a chance to finally crack open the black box of peer review and make scientists more responsive to criticism. Indeed, the Internet has already started to look inside that box, thanks in large part to data-sharing and intrepid science bloggers who have made highlighting scientific errors their life’s work.
For these crusaders, this trend is more than just fact-checking. Transparency is essential because making sure that studies are reproducible is a core part of the scientific process. It’s not enough to have a single study to show an effect; to generate scientific consensus, we need multiple studies demonstrating similar results over and over again.
For years, scientists have fretted over a “replication crisis” across scientific disciplines. The solution — or at least part of the solution — is a call for reform to encourage more data-sharing and for academic journals to accept more studies that attempt to replicate earlier research. Why not bring that spirit into government science?
But now, thanks to Pruitt, transparency threatens to become just another code word for an attack on science.
As terrible as Pruitt’s proposed restrictions may be policy-wise, equally terrifying are the Trump supporters who will fortify their climate-change denialism with paranoia about “secret science.”
And at the other end of the spectrum, it’s disheartening to think of scientists who might now reflexively resist the culture change needed to make science more open.
This isn’t a negligible risk. The transparency movement in science has come with considerable resistance from scientists, who argue that the peer review process is working just fine and that increased data-sharing will lead to biased re-analysis. Others have resisted turning science over to an online forum, because it might lead to online harassment or criticism that could impugn the integrity of a researcher. In one high-profile case, a psychologist once went so far as to refer to online criticism of her work as “methodological terrorism.”
Sure, such a response is a bit overblown. But these academics do have some legitimate concerns that should be addressed with proper debate and innovation. Transparency is worth pursuing and encouraging, and it would be a shame to see scientists begin to see any government policy promoting transparency as a political attack.
But this apparently doesn’t matter for Pruitt. He has hijacked the legitimate desire for transparency in science to call for a mandate that all data — no matter what its source — be open to the public. That’s extreme.