EPA Advisory Board’s Restricted Science Advice Is Too Little, Too Late, and Comes During a National Crisis

, Lead science and policy analyst | April 29, 2020, 10:12 am EDT
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In a strange turn of events, EPA issued a press release welcoming and quoting its Science Advisory Board’s (SAB’s) final recommendations report on the so-called Strengthening Transparency rule. The paragraph quoted in the press release was not in the SAB’s harsher draft letter, and I would argue it is incorrect in assuming good intentions behind EPA’s rule.

While it claims that EPA’s rule is a good-faith effort in strengthening the agency’s transparency in scientific decisionmaking, all evidence regarding how the rule was designed (poorly), who it was crafted by (political appointees, not scientists), and the scientific community’s criticism (including much of the rest of the SAB’s final letter), points to the opposite.

It’s important to acknowledge that the advisory process has been botched from the start. If EPA really cared about transparency in its scientific work, it would have sought SAB’s counsel when it began designing the rule. Instead, when slipping it by them failed, EPA ensured the board’s advice would come too late to alter the rule’s content. EPA submitted its supplemental rule to the Office of Management and Budget before receiving SAB’s recommendation on the full proposal, hearing only member consultations related to a narrow question about privacy considerations. SAB’s feedback, solidified in January, does not take into consideration the supplemental notice, issued in March, which significantly altered key definitions and scope of the rule.

Administration Wheeler isn’t interested in honest and constructive criticism. This is made clear by his recent changes to the SAB’s process, giving the chair more power over decisions about what the board reviews during secret meetings, in pushing out this rule that uniquely impacts public health professionals at a time when that group is preoccupied by a national public health crisis, and in EPA’s failure to host a public hearing on the supplemental notice.

Wheeler is no stranger to breaking with established precedent and changing processes to the detriment of public and environmental health. EPA has broken its own advisory committee process by arbitrarily limiting the pool of advisorsfailing to listen to its own staff when making appointments resulting in some conflicted members, and moving toward the less thorough consultation review process on proposed rules rather than full consensus-building peer review. Wheeler has already pulled out all the stops to turn expert review into a rubber-stamp mechanism for his deregulatory agenda.

Which is why EPA’s press release focuses on the positives and doesn’t get into the criticism buried within. EPA’s advisors acknowledge in their final letter that the proposal lacks significant analysis and could be extremely burdensome for the agency. While some of the language has been massaged to be more constructive, its criticisms are generally the same in the final letter as they were in the draft. One of the significant changes was the removal of perhaps the harshest criticism, that the rule could be viewed as a “license to politicize the scientific evaluation required under the statute based on administratively determined criteria for what is practicable.” Here are the main concerns laid out in the SAB’s final letter:

  • The proposal could allow EPA to exclude vast amounts of information from consideration as it makes decisions. Meeting the requirement of public accessibility “would be enormously expensive and time consuming at best and could be expected to result in the exclusion of much of the scientific literature from consideration…”
  • The proposal is a solution in search of a problem. “There is minimal justification in the Proposed Rule for why the EPA finds that existing procedures and norms utilized across the U.S. scientific community, including the federal government, are inadequate… Moving forward with altered transparency requirements beyond those already in use, in the absence of such a robust analysis, risks serious and perverse outcomes.”
  • The proposal is so vague that its impact cannot be fully assessed. “Considerations that should inform the Proposed Rule are not present in the proposal or presented without analysis and explanation of scope…it is not possible at this time to define the implications of the rule with confidence.”
  • The proposal could impede scientific research and integrity inside EPA. “It is plausible that in some situations, the proposed rule will decrease efficiency and reduce scientific integrity.”
  • The proposal would politicize science by giving the administrator the authority to include or exclude specific studies. It could result in the “inappropriate exclusion of scientifically important studies” and “could allow systematic bias to be introduced with no easy remedy.”

Per recommendations from several board members appointed under the Trump administration, including those offering dissenting opinions, the final letter gives more credit to the designers of EPA’s proposal than they deserve. This rule was never about strengthening transparency and always about hampering decisions made with independent science. If finalized, it would hinder the agency’s ability to meet its mission by precluding it from using the best available science.

There’s still time to add your voice to that of SAB members and submit a comment to the EPA on this dangerous proposal. Our comment guide has more details on how to do that.

Photo: Alex Edelman/AP Images

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