The underlying question is how much data scientists must release publicly in order for the EPA to consider their studies credible. Industry groups and anti-scientist cranks who believe global warming and air pollutants are benign have for years complained that major federal environmental regulations rely on studies that keep some underlying data confidential. Two major studies in particular, the Times notes, have rankled the cranks: A Harvard paper and an American Cancer Society analysis definitively linking air pollution with premature death.
But it is standard operating procedure for researchers submitting papers to prestigious peer-reviewed journals to keep some data confidential. Underlying data might contain health, housing, occupational, business or other information that would be harder for scientists to collect without confidentiality agreements.
The Trump EPA last year moved to restrict its consideration of studies that did not disclose underlying data. A new draft supplement to the rule, which the Times revealed last Monday, explained that the “EPA will ensure that data and models underlying science that is pivotal to EPA’s significant regulatory decisions are publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation and analysis.”
Among the causes for alarm is that the draft would appear to expand the scope of what sort of research could be restricted — from only “dose-response” studies to all studies. The Times also raised the prospect that fresh requirements on scientific research would apply to air and water regulations that the EPA has already established, possibly leading to the wholesale rollback of rules that rely on the Harvard paper and other well-established studies. This is particularly concerning if studies documenting, say, the hazards of lead paint dust or mercury spewed from coal-fired power plants are declared unusable.
The EPA denies that the final proposal will be so pernicious and that established rules are in danger. The draft supplement the Times published Monday indicates that the agency might consider softer versions of the policy. But it is still unclear why any shift in Obama-era policy is needed. Even a less cumbersome version of the new policy would require researchers or the federal government to spend massive amounts of time and money anonymizing research data for public release to ensure that the government can use state-of-the-science information to protect Americans’ health — and all to indulge an unreasonable distrust in expert work.
There is a point past which skepticism is no longer healthy but, rather, an excuse to troll scientists and undercut findings that some interested parties would prefer to ignore or deny. As the EPA finalizes its new rules, it must not embrace willful blindness as policy.