The So-Called “Secret Science” Rule is Kaput…For Now

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Opinion
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Sierra Club.

In fall of 2020, the EPA came out with a new risk assessment for the neurotoxic insecticide, chlorpyrifos. Prior research–specifically long-term cohort studies conducted by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health–found that children who were exposed to chlorpyrifos in utero were more likely to have neurodevelopmental problems years later. But the new EPA risk assessment concluded that when it came to chlorpyrifos, “despite several years of study, the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.” 

This was a complete U-turn from the EPA’s prior 2016 human health risk assessment, which cited neurodevelopmental risks to children as one reason for  banning the pesticide. The EPA did this by eliminating Columbia’s cohort study from its new risk assessment, on the grounds that the confidential health data used by Columbia couldn’t be released to the public 

This false notion of the EPA using “secret science” to make decisions about the safety of products like chlorpyrifos was fundamental to the Trump Administration EPA’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” Rule, which was  issued in 2018, and tested out by the agency even before it was finalized in January of 2021, in the last days of the administration. 

Under the guise of “transparency,” this rule required the agency to downweight or eliminate scientific studies from consideration if all of their raw data wasn’t public—a tricky definition that specifically targeted epidemiological studies that rely on private health data tied to personal details that can’t and shouldn’t be made public—like zip code, gender, and date of birth. The rule was a direct and deliberately misleading attack on the foundational science by which we can assess the risks of air pollution and toxic chemicals. The goal wasn’t transparency, it was  nullifying laws like the Clean Air Act by pulling the scientific foundation out from under them. 

Though the Trump administration was an ardent supporter of the concept of “secret science,” its origin is more insidious. For more than two decades the tobacco, chemical, and other industries championed this false narrative as a way to discredit research used by the EPA and other agencies. They knew that the science showing harm from a range of industrial products and processes would result in stronger protections, and the only way to stop it would be to remove inconvenient evidence. 

In a memo to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1996, lobbyist Christopher Horner wrote about the need to construct “explicit procedural hurdles the Agency must follow in issuing scientific reports” because “our approach is one of addressing process as opposed to scientific substance.” Horner aimed this effort at rules governing tobacco smoke, but it also had the potential to disrupt the EPA’s efforts to address virtually any health threat: mercury emissions, dioxins, hazardous waste, and air pollution.

In 2016, the Trump administration provided the window that lobbyists needed. Horner, was appointed to Trump’s  transition team, and  In 2018, political appointees at the EPA rolled out the so-called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, following the tobacco industry’s playbook, and fulfilling the longtime wish of powerful industry lobbyists. For two years, this proposed rule met intense backlash from scientific institutions, public health and medical practitioners.  

Researchers in the U.S. and abroad pointed out it was an egregious attempt to restrict how agencies use the best available science. EPA leadership ignored the outcry and finalized the flawed rule in the departing administration’s last few days. The hasty process of finalizing the rule proved to be its downfall: in response to a legal challenge, the U.S. District Court for the District in Montana vacated the rule and remanded it to EPA, which, under new leadership, will not pursue it further. 

This dangerous rule has been quashed for now, but we can’t be complacent. Scientists and experts at federal agencies must have the best information available to them, and the discretion to make evidence-based decisions to promote the public good.

The so-called ‘transparency’ rule was based on a fundamentally fictional premise about how science, and federal agencies, work. Scientific research, including epidemiological research, is subject to rigorous peer review. At the EPA, scientists follow a robust procedure for ensuring they are utilizing the best available evidence. The scientific studies that are used to support rules are part of the administrative record, and the rulemaking process provides opportunities for public comment, science advisory committees actively check the work of the agency and serve as independent validators. 

To prevent this from happening again, our leaders should be focused on strengthening the role of science across the government. We need to ensure that these government systems already in place to support the voices of scientists within the government are bolstered, and that avenues for political interference or manipulation are eliminated. We can revitalize science advisory committees which were underutilized, corrupted, or cut altogether under the Trump administration. Membership on these committees must be diverse, qualified, and free of conflicts of interest so that there is never a question regarding the integrity of its recommendations. 

The Biden administration has already signaled that it values evidence-based decision making and scientific integrity in its presidential memo issued in January. Hopefully with strengthened scientific integrity policies and scientific integrity officers at all agencies will come stronger enforcement, disincentivizing those who would meddle with scientific work for political ends. Biden’s executive order, Modernizing Regulatory Review, offered potential changes to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which has a track record of  meeting frequently with industry stakeholders and delaying or altering scientific findings. 

Making our government more trustworthy doesn’t mean throwing out good science on disingenuous premises. It requires clear communication between agencies, opportunities for public comment from a diverse range of stakeholders, and fewer chances for conflicts of interest or political interference in the decision making process.

Just as the government is shifting to restore public trust, scientific institutions can become more transparent as well. Open access (without revealing confidential information) can provide many benefits such as more equitable access to scientific research and data, and knowledge sharing among researchers, and opportunities to test the robustness of new ideas.

Such efforts could include mitigating the costs for authors to publish in open-access journals and encouraging information sharing pre-publication. The rapid onset of COVID-19 is a case where open sharing of scientific knowledge between researchers greatly benefited understanding of the virus and enabled the rapid and timely communication of threats to the public, despite the Trump administration’s myriad attempts to thwart a successful pandemic response in the US.

Even under a Biden administration, the same lobbyists and bad actors are still going to attempt to stymie environmental and public health protections to preserve the status quo. That’s why there’s no time like the present to reform the systems that have allowed this influence and political interference to occur. Transparency efforts that seek to open up the decision making process and allow more opportunity for public input and accountability will help boost trust in our agencies as we, the people, hold the tools to ensure their work benefits all of us.

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