Without data accountability, how do we call the right shots?

By: Dr. Joseph Perrone, Sc.D. - Guest columnist

Recently, the U.S. Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Despite environmentalists’ concerns about his qualifications, at least one aspect of Pruitt’s stated agenda is something everyone can agree on: Bring back scientific transparency to the Agency.

Many people may be surprised to find that the EPA doesn’t even own, nor does it have access to, much of the data informing the basis of its most impactful regulations. The trouble stems largely from EPA research grants, which fail to require the entirety of researchers’ findings be released to the federal agency. And Trump certainly hasn’t helped matters of transparency after imposing a gag order on EPA scientists in his first week in office.

EPA staff admitted to their agency’s meager access to information after being unable to produce raw air pollution data requested under a 2013 Congressional subpoena. Part of the data in question belonged to Harvard University, where researchers tied air pollution to deaths in 6 U.S. cities. Since its publication, the study has been an integral vehicle for EPA efforts to constrict air quality regulations.

That the data supporting upwards of $65 billion in regulatory oversight is “held solely by… outside research institutions” and never scrutinized by their funding agencies is troubling, to say the least. Policy generally shouldn’t be based on secret data.

In 2009, researchers with Stanford University found that roughly 2 percent of scientists intentionally fabricated, falsified, or modified data at some point in their career. Roughly one third admit to lesser, but certainly still impactful, forms of scientific misconduct.

And if government toleration of widespread fraud is too jarring a prospect, consider this: a pair of Dutch statisticians found that almost every academic in the field of psychology had published research containing a minor statistical error in the last two decades.

A major tenant of science is the replication of previous results to assure their validity. With a federal government disinterested in obtaining raw data to compare to future research, no one can know if the initial results of any study were obtained by chance, manipulation, or accurate science, or if attempts to address an underlying environmental problem are having any effect at all.

EPA awards research grants in fields complimentary to its mission – air and water quality, climate change, and chemical safety, to name a few. Upwards of 750 research projects have been dependent on the agency’s funding in the last 5 years. And if none of the resulting studies are able to be validated, our foundation of knowledge is a lot less stable than we think.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that all federally-funded research is meritless simply because it avoids governmental scrutiny. After all, scientists must submit a robust quality assurance plan before the grant-funded research process can begin. But we must entertain the very real possibility that without transparency, we have no way of knowing which results are valuable, and which contain a fatal flaw.

The EPA certainly isn’t the only entity guilty of accepting published findings as unquestionable fact. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment admittedly relies on the findings of a controversial foreign body – the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – to direct some of its own policies. IARC has previously stated that working at night belongs in the same category of carcinogenicity as toxic mold and gasoline. It’s a laughable comparison.

Yet since California consumers represent more than 10% of the total U.S. population, the state’s reliance on IARC forces every retailer hoping to gain access to California’s vast market to bend to shoddy science.

There’s no doubt that some environmental regulations are accurate and necessary. But without data transparency, we can’t expect to devise the best possible solutions to the public health problems at hand.

Perhaps more ground may have been gained improving life expectancy by pursuing methods alternate to those imposed under the Clean Air Act. Until Pruitt can implement scientific and transparent scrutiny of EPA research, there is not much to be done but hold our breath and wait.

Dr. Joseph Perrone, Sc.D.

Guest columnist

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science.

Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science.