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Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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Major journal editors blast EPA’s ‘secret science’ rule, again

The editors of six major scientific journals have raised a new alarm about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) controversial data transparency proposal. The proposal could become “a mechanism for suppressing the use of relevant scientific evidence in policy-making, including public health regulations,” the editors of Science, Nature, PLOS, Cell Press, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write today in a joint statement. It follows a similar statement issued in early 2018.

Both statements come in response to an EPA proposal for a new rule that would generally bar the agency from using studies that do not make their underlying data publicly available. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has said the rule is needed to ensure the agency uses only the best available science. But although the research community generally supports such calls for data transparency—and many journals require it for certain kinds of studies—the EPA proposal has drawn sharp criticism from many scientific and patient advocacy groups. In large part, that is because they fear agency officials will use it to rule out epidemiological studies that include confidential patient data that are difficult to make public. Such studies have often underpinned tougher air and water pollution regulations.

In today’s letter, the journal editors urge EPA to maintain an emphasis on the quality of the studies it uses, and not make data transparency the determining factor. “We urge the EPA to continue to adopt an approach that ensures the data used in decision-making are the best available, which will at times require consideration of peer-reviewed scientific data, not all of which may be open to all members of the public,” they write. “The most relevant science, vetted through peer review, should inform public policy. Anything less will harm decision-making that claims to protect our health.”

The editors also urge the agency to reject the idea, floated in a recently leaked draft supplement to its proposal, of retroactively applying the data transparency rule to studies the agency has used in the past to set pollution limits. A retroactive requirement could prevent the agency from considering those studies when it periodically updates those standards, as required by law. “[T]hus, foundational science from years past—research on air quality and asthma, for example, or water quality and human health—could be deemed by the EPA to be insufficient for informing our most significant public health issues,” the editors write. “That would be a catastrophe.”

Wheeler has said that agency officials are hoping to finalize the rule sometime next year.