Jan 5, 2021 - Science

EPA finalizes rule limiting research used for public health, environmental policy

Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, May 20, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a rule that limits scientific research used in the crafting of public health and environmental policy.

Why it matters: Researchers argue the rule that prioritizes studies with all data available publicly "essentially blocks" research that uses personal information and confidential medical records that can't be released because of privacy conditions, per the New York Times, which first reported the news Monday.

  • A requirement to disclose raw data would have prevented past major studies from going ahead. "Such studies have served as the scientific underpinnings of some of the most important clean air and water regulations of the past half century," the Times notes.

Details: The EPA declined a request for comment, but referred Axios to an op-ed by Administrator Andrew Wheeler in the Wall Street Journal published Monday evening headlined, "Why We're Ending the EPA's Reliance on Secret Science." Wheeler is expected to officially announce the rule Tuesday.

  • In the op-ed, Wheeler insists the rule is "not a stick for forcing scientists to choose between respecting the privacy and rights of their study participants and submitting their work for consideration."
  • "Our rule will prioritize transparency and increase opportunities for the public to access the 'dose-response' data that underlie significant regulations and influential scientific information," Wheeler wrote of the measure, called the Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions Rule.
  • "Dose-response data explain the relationship between the amount of a chemical or pollutant and its effect on human health and the environment—and are the foundation of the EPA’s regulations."
"If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government."

What they're saying: Thomas Sinks, who previously led the Office of the Science Advisor at EPA and oversaw the agency's rules around research involving human subjects, told the Washington Post the rule is "based on a conspiracy theory, which is that EPA practices secret science" despite no evidence to support this.

  • "I'm mostly concerned about the fact this rule and other actions like this rule are diminishing the efforts and the importance of science and scientists within the federal government," he said. "That is a dangerous precedent."
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