It’s official. In the latest of the Trump administration’s last-minute assaults on regulatory policy, the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday evening finalized one of its most controversial rule changes, limiting what research it can consider in creating pollution standards.
The Trump administration’s “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, known informally as the “secret science” rule, requires public health scientists to disclose their raw data —including private medical records—in order for their research to be considered in crafting policy. The rule change, which the EPA has been pursuing since the beginning of Trump’s presidency and first officially proposed in 2018, has seen three different iterations. The one finalized this week will apply only to dose-response studies, which demonstrate how increased exposure to pollution affects people’s health and the environment, rather than all research. So it’s narrow, yes, but it’s still very bad.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Monday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claimed the rule change will boost transparency. But the proposal has been roundly criticized by leading researchers and top scientific journal editors as a means to restrict the federal agency from using the best scientific findings on human subjects, since doing so would breach confidentiality agreements with human study participants and medical patients. This would in effect clamp down on the use of important, vetted research to justify creating stronger pollution standards.
“The purpose of this rule is to provide roadblocks to using important, peer-reviewed scientific information in environmental regulations,” John Bachmann, former associate director for science and policy at the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, said in an emailed statement. “It is neither transparent nor necessary given the progress made in promoting transparency through guidance and policy, while protecting the privacy of subjects included in important health effects studies.”
The final rule does allow the EPA administrator to grant exceptions for scientific studies it deems necessary, acknowledging that in some cases—like in the case of older research where original data isn’t available—compliance could be “impracticable.” But actually making use of the exemption process may not be so easy, because doing so could be met with lawsuits.
“This will introduce political maneuvering into what should be a purely scientific process,” Ben Levitan, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in an emailed statement. This could create procedural headaches for the Biden administration’s incoming EPA Administrator Michael Reagan when he takes office next month.
To be clear, the rule won’t only apply to some particularly radical subset of health research. Most public health studies include some level of confidential data. The groundbreaking 1993 Six Cities study, for instance, created the foundation for air quality standards in the U.S. Under the new rule, this research could be difficult to rely on to craft policy.
The rule is also ripe for corrupt use by polluters like the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, who could intentionally make their underlying data public to curry favor from agency officials and have their research prioritized in federal policy—and that’s no accident. There are mountains of evidence that the entire scheme of acting like health research that includes confidential information is “secret science” was created by Big Tobacco.
This may sound like some wild conspiracy, but it’s true. In 1996, the EPA found that secondhand cigarette smoke is a serious threat to public health. Of course, this had the tobacco industry freaked out, so in response, a lawyer representing the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company wrote a memo outlining a plan to fight off the threat of regulation. “Our approach is one of addressing process as opposed to scientific substance,” he wrote. The goal was to “construct explicit procedural hurdles the agency must follow in issuing scientific reports,” avoiding the consideration of findings on public health by “focusing on the process by which EPA arrived at its scientific conclusions.” Now the fossil fuel industry is following in Big Tobacco’s footsteps, crying “secret science” to protect their own interests.
It looks like they’ve won—at least, for now. The Biden administration can push to overturn the rule, but it could take months to do so. Let’s hope they start working at it as they take the White House.