Science doesn’t get much respect from the Trump administration. Among other things, the administration has brushed off as unimportant the effect of burning fossil fuels on global warming, and has ignored the effect of emissions of mercury and other toxins from power plants on the environment and human health.
But now the administration wants to further reduce the influence of science on public policy through a bit of regulatory subterfuge that is stunning in its malign craftiness. If the administration succeeds, we’ll all be the worse for it.
At issue is a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency with the Orwellian name, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” The rule (a version of which first surfaced in April 2018) would require scientists to reveal the raw data they used in conducting studies, including, where relevant, the personal medical records of participants, if the work is to be used to craft federal regulations.
That sounds reasonable on the surface. The administration argues that making the raw data public would allow other scientists to verify or build upon a particular study’s findings.
But in reality, requiring researchers to reveal the raw data would blow up long-standing practices, especially with regard to health and environmental studies in which individual medical records are anonymized to protect participants’ privacy. If researchers are not able to guarantee anonymity, experts say, it will become exceedingly difficult to persuade people to participate in studies aimed at shedding light on the health effects of various activities. If they do guarantee anonymity, government agencies won’t be allowed to consider their conclusions in drawing up new rules and policies.
Which means not “more transparency,” but less scientific influence on federal regulations and policymaking, particularly as they affect public health. And it would undermine the influence of past studies such as the landmark 1993 Six Cities study from Harvard University, which used anonymized data to establish the link between lengthy exposure to air pollution and increased deaths. Reducing the role of independent scientific studies in developing regulations has long been on the agenda of pro-industry conservatives, so it should come as no surprise that the Trump administration backs it as well.
But it’s a dangerous game. Regulations and policies affecting public health of necessity should rely on clear-eyed analysis of the best science and data available; this rule moves the country in the wrong direction.
According to critics, the government makes a weak case for why the new rule is necessary; furthermore, it probably conflicts with existing federal laws governing, among other things, public disclosure of personal medical records. So once again, a bad idea from the Trump administration could well die in court before it can imperil public health. At least, we hope it does.