Defending science

Apparently I am not alone in feeling deep concern about what’s happening at the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt. In recent months there’s been a flood of news describing how the agency is rescinding regulations and devising arbitrary exemptions at the behest of industries it is supposed to regulate, elevating politics over science-based policy. Last month the American Public Health Association released a study that examines changes at the EPA in just the first six months after Mr. Pruitt’s appointment. It concludes that the agency has moved very far away from its stated mission “to protect human and environmental health,” and is trending towards an unquestioning pro-business agenda.

Sociologists call this “regulatory capture,” which occurs “when an agency’s policy serves the industries it is intended to regulate, rather than the public it is supposed to protect.” The association’s study documents problematical agency actions it says bring the agency perilously close to regulatory capture. These include unprecedented secrecy about decision-making and the administrator’s meeting schedule; the discrediting of scientific process; the dismissal of scientists from science advisory boards and their replacement with industry lobbyists; and attacks on the traditional confidentiality of health studies and the discrediting of legitimate health data. More recently, the agency has announced rollbacks of numerous pollution standards, disregarded peer-reviewed air-quality standards to clear the way for a pet economic project in Wisconsin, and on April 30 issued a new proposed “secret science” rule.

“Secret science” accusations seek to discredit public health studies. A legislative effort originally funded by the tobacco industry in the 1990s has now been embraced by climate-change deniers and lobbyists representing industries that might be inconvenienced by evidence of health damages associated with soot or fine particulate matter—known as PM2.5—associated with transportation and the burning of wood, coal and fossil fuels.

The EPA’s proposed “secret science” policy would rule out the use of public health studies unless all of the raw data is publicly released. Since revealing all of the background information would violate the patient confidentiality that makes such studies possible, adoption of this rule would make it very difficult to base regulations on legitimate health research. The term “secret science” is a cynical mis-characterization of the legitimate process of medical research, and it ignores the fact that such health studies are peer reviewed in a time-honored process that independently validates the research while protecting the personal data of the study participants.

The Union of Concerned Scientists believes the rule as drafted is specifically crafted to limit the use of public health data that shows linkage between PM2.5 and air pollutants that contribute to millions of deaths each year from heart and respiratory diseases. The EPA’s public comment period closes on May 30. Numerous medical and science organizations have registered their opposition. You can join them and defend science in the face of this latest assault by the politically appointed leadership of the very agency whose unique mission is to protect the public health, based upon the best available science.

To comment on the EPA’s new rule, entitled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, visit

The American Public Health Association study
“The Environmental Protection Agency in the Early Trump Administration: Prelude to Regulatory Capture,” Lindsey Dillon PhD, Christopher Sellers MD, PhD, Vivian Underhill BA, Nicholas Shapiro PhD, Jennifer Liss OhayonPhD, Marianne Sullivan PhD, Phil Brown PhD, Jill Harrison PhD, Sara Wylie PhD, et. al.
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA)


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