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EPA's "transparency" proposal would undermine scientific research

The Trump administration has made denial of science its calling card, but now it is going a step further. Under a new proposal put forth by Trump's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and published by the New York Times, policymakers won't just have to ignore the science when making laws — they can prevent data from even being considered in the first place. The change would require unprecedented and unsafe levels of disclosure that will keep essential information from being shared with agencies crafting rules meant to keep the public safe.

The EPA policy in question is the agency's "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" proposal — an idea that the Trump administration has been kicking around for over a year now. The proposal operates under the guise of increasing transparency when dealing with scientific and medical research by requiring scientists to make public all data and information that is the basis for their research. While that idea may seem simplistic enough on the surface, it undermines fundamental principles of scientific research. Much of the data used to research public health issues include confidential medical records and patient data that cannot be made public, lest it risk the privacy of people involved in the study. While that information is typically kept private, the peer review process typically ensures the data and conclusions drawn from it is accurate, even if the the actual data itself is never made public. Now, the Trump administration wants to require that information — again, we're talking about sensitive and confidential medical records — to be made public. If it is not, the EPA won't take the scientific research and findings based on that data into consideration when making public policy.

This plan to undermine scientific research has been on the Trump administration's mind for some time now, as it first suggested this change in 2018, back when climate change denier Scott Pruitt was in charge of the agency. But now, with former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler now at the helm, the agency is taking its faux transparency efforts a step farther. Instead of just requiring all data to be made public for scientific research to be considered in future rule making, the latest draft of the so-called "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" proposal would also retrofit that requirement to rules that are already in place. That means any rule that is on the books already based on research that has not been made fully public could be repealed.

The proposed policy change, which won't be finalized until next year, is the latest in the Trump administration's ongoing war with science. In some cases, the battle is just about making the president look good, like when Trump's administration declared an all-out war on meteorologists because the president falsely claimed Hurricane Dorian was going to hit Alabama. (It didn't.) In other cases, it has severely impaired our ability to deal with long-term and potentially existential threats like climate change, which the president doesn't believe is real. But the EPA's supposed "transparency" proposal doesn't just aim to save the president from embarrassment or erode our ability to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades. It hurts people right now — especially members of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

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In almost every state in the country, communities of color bear a significantly higher burden when it comes to pollution. A study published by the EPA earlier this year found that non-white communities located near refineries or factories are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of fine particle pollution than white communities. Another study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists produced similar findings. The reasons for this vary and include a number of institutionalized disadvantages for communities of color, including economic inequality that often places these communities closer to sources of pollution. But the EPA study found that "disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status,” suggesting that race is just as much, if not more of a factor than economic status. Protecting these communities requires study and assessment of nearby pollution — a process that may require counting on research that uses confidential medical data to determine if members of the community are suffering from any health impacts caused by these facilities. Under the Trump administration's proposed law, the EPA wouldn't have to protect these communities when research shows that they are at risk unless the underlying data, including confidential medical records, is made public. Likewise, the agency could repeal existing protections based on past research if the scientists did not initially make their full data sets public.

“Let’s call this what it is: an excuse to abandon clean air, clean water, and chemical safety rules," Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement. "This new restriction on science would upend the way we protect communities from pollution and other health threats."

If the risk posed to vulnerable communities and the potential violation of people's privacy isn't convincing enough reason to view the EPA's "transparency" effort with skepticism, then consider the cost of the rule. If scientists and researchers were made to turn over all of their data to be made public, the burden would fall on the EPA to redact any private information in order to protect people. The New York Times reported that a federal estimate suggested that process alone would require the government agency to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars that it otherwise wouldn't have to.

The Trump administration has repeatedly made it clear that science is no important to it. The proposed rule put forth by the EPA is simply an effort to put that complete disinterest into law. Of course, it won't come as much of a surprise that the fossil fuel industry and other polluters have favored a law like this for some time. Now, with Trump in the White House and former oil and gas executives and lobbyists on staff throughout the government, the industry will get what it truly wants: a policy that suppresses science that doesn't work in its favor.