How Scott Pruitt's “transparency” rule is just a sneaky ploy to censor science

Jennifer McPartland

In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General shocked Americans with an advisory linking tobacco to lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. The anti-smoking campaign that ensued was one of the biggest public health successes of all time.

Too bad that the Trump administration has decided to censor the kinds of scientific studies that prompted the tobacco warning half a century ago – and which more recently helped strengthen air pollution standards and countless other public health advances.

What Scott Pruitt, our reckless U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief, calls a rule against “secret science” is code talk for blocking his agency’s use of peer-reviewed research if data in such studies cannot be made public, even for practical or legitimate reasons.

Research that underpinned American public health policies for decades could soon be – poof – gone. You can see where this is going.

Chemical safety studies in jeopardy

The push to censor science comes as the Trump administration is rolling back clean air and water safeguards, and undermining a significant 2016 chemical safety law.

As the proposed EPA science rule took shape, political appointees such as Nancy Beck, formerly with the chemical industry’s lobbying arm and now the top dog in EPA’s toxics office, played a key role shaping its language. As might be expected, the rule could limit what studies are used in activities she oversees, further eroding chemical safety.

Same thing with studies informing clean air and water standards, or research showing how pollution causes cancer.

Landmark air pollution study out the door?

A major research project focused on air pollution and mortality – part of the American Cancer Society’s sweeping Cancer Prevention Study – is among those that could be censored by Pruitt’s EPA.

The study covered 500,000 people tracked nationwide between 1982 and 2004. Participants shared intimate details about their personal and medical lives; including economic and marital status, eating habits, alcohol consumption, medication, religion and other private matters.

The research went through many rounds of review and independent re-analysis to confirm its results. It has helped shape air pollution laws in the United States and elsewhere.

And yet, under Pruitt’s new proposed rule, government scientists and policymakers may be unable to use this highly respected study going forward.

Impossible demands

The proposed rule says the EPA cannot rely on studies unless all data on which they rely is made public, with possible exemptions for private data. But it doesn’t make clear what data counts as private, or how private medical information will remain protected – and it’s entirely up to Pruitt to make such exemptions.  

Getting written consent from study participants to release data would also be a futile chase. Many have since passed away and their family members are very hard to track down.

All this means critical scientific research could be excluded from policy decisions going forward. Pruitt’s EPA knows these realities full well.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Science has guided government policy for a long time. Billions in federal funds have been steered over the years to advance research and protect public health. To suddenly change the rules and let politics limit what science we can consider will only take us back to a darker and more ignorant time.

Good leaders look out for our well-being and health. They champion strong research. What they don’t do is engage in double-speak or censor science.

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