What’s Wrong with Expecting the EPA to Make All of Its Data Available—Isn’t Complete Transparency a Good Thing?

Ask the Scientist - May 2015

This month we asked Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst with our Center for Science and Democracy, about one of the anti-science “zombie” bills that House members insist on reintroducing over and over. These bills are written in such a way to appear to be something a science advocacy organization like the Union of Concerned Scientists would support, but upon close examination, it becomes clear that their intent is to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies from carrying out their duties.

In a recent hearing on the so-called Secret Science bill, legislators accused the Environmental Protection Agency of “[relying] on studies with data that was not publicly available,” and one legislator asked, “Is it too much to ask the EPA to follow the same guidelines I give my children in elementary school? Show your work?” What’s wrong with expecting the EPA to make all of its data available for anybody to see? Isn’t complete transparency a good thing?

The House passed the bill you cite, the Secret Science Reform Act, in mid-March, but it is unlikely to pass the Senate. And if it does, President Obama is sure to veto it — and rightfully so.

Why do I say that? Because the bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would prohibit the EPA from implementing a regulation unless it makes public all related data, scientific analyses, materials and models. That’s a big problem, despite the fact that it sounds like a good idea.

Agencies such as the EPA don’t make all this information publicly available for a number of very good reasons. Protecting individuals’ privacy is prime among them. For example, we’re all aware of the laws that protect the privacy of our medical records. The Secret Science bill appears to require the EPA to release such confidential personal health information about the participants in scientific studies if it wants to use health studies to make regulatory decisions—a direct violation of health privacy law. The bill also fails to protect intellectual property rights, another reason data often cannot be publicly released.

Further, the bill would not compel companies and others to make their relevant data publicly available to the agency.

The upshot is, if this bill became law, the EPA would not be able to use public health data protected by confidentiality agreements to enact science-based regulations. The result? The EPA would not be able to carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment.

To be clear, there is nothing secret about the science that EPA uses to make decisions. The agency relies on peer-reviewed publications that have been vetted by relevant experts in and outside of the agency. And in most cases, the public and decisionmakers need not see the raw data, just the studies that have gone through the scientific process. That is how science is translated into policy.

The Secret Science Reform Act is clearly not in the public interest. It’s intended to enable industry to challenge proposed rules with competing analyses, slow the process, and cast doubt. That was tobacco industry’s modus operandi to stave off meaningful regulations for decades, and exactly what many industries are doing today to try to unravel our public health and environmental protections. We can’t afford to give corporations more ammunition to undermine these critical science-based laws.

Gretchen Goldman

As a lead analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, Gretchen Goldman researches how science is used and misused in public policy. Dr. Goldman has worked at the Northeast Regional Climate Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and interned with National Exposure Research Laboratory at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She serves on the Air and Climate Public Advisory Committee for the Metropolitain Washington Council of Governments. She holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Environmental Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Atmospheric Science from Cornell University.