Ep. 40: Pruitt's Transparency Problem (and it's not his ethics scandals)

 Harvard's landmark "Six Cities" study evaluated the effects of pollution on adults in the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers concluded that there was a strong link between chronic exposure to air pollution and mortality. Under Pruitt's rule, studies like this could be withheld from the EPA’s process for creating new regulations because the raw data contains names, addresses and private health information of individuals. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Harvard's landmark "Six Cities" study evaluated the effects of pollution on adults in the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers concluded that there was a strong link between chronic exposure to air pollution and mortality. Under Pruitt's rule, studies like this could be withheld from the EPA’s process for creating new regulations because the raw data contains names, addresses and private health information of individuals. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

From its inception, science has been at the core of the EPA’s mission. It’s used science about the health effects of industrial pollution to make our air and water cleaner. But EPA administrator Scott Pruitt wants to limit what kinds of research the agency can use when making regulations. To that end, he has introduced the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule. Transparency -- sounds good, right? But with this new rule, the agency would limit what kinds of research it can use when making regulations.

If the rule goes into place, EPA scientists would no longer be allowed to use studies that don’t make their raw data available to the public. That includes most public health studies because these often use confidential patient information that is generally shielded from public view. So the agency might not be able to use studies showing harmful effects of particle pollution or chemicals, if those studies don’t make the patient data public. On top of that, the rule would exempt certain types of industry-funded science. This has many scientists furious. Nearly 1,000 of them signed a letter calling the proposal a way to run “political interference in science-based decision making.”

To learn more about this issue, we turned to someone who ran a big science program at the EPA. Bernard Goldstein was assistant administrator for research and development at the agency during the Reagan administration. He’s now a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

Goldstein says that to understand the problem with Pruitt’s new proposed rule, you have to understand how environmental health science works. While double-blinded, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) using placebos are common in drug trials, that model is impossible for most environmental health research.

“I can't put half of Pittsburgh on an air pollutant but not the other half. That's not possible. What we do instead is take advantage of natural occurrences in cities with different levels of a pollutant. One of the key studies having to do with air pollution comes from a coal fired power plant in Utah that was on strike. For months, they suddenly were not putting out anything. And one was able to look at the community to see what happened. When the coal fired plant wasn't working, there were less respiratory effects. But we didn't design that study. That was something that came about by chance.”

One study in particular has had a big impact on clean air regulations. The “Six Cities” study from Harvard tracked the health of thousands of people for almost two decades. Scientists published their findings in 1993, and concluded that people in cities with dirtier air died earlier than those in places with cleaner air. And with this information in hand, the EPA was able to set stricter standards for air pollution. And save lives.

“The industry cried foul they wanted to see the raw data. The Harvard folks did not want to share the raw data both because of people's names and numbers being released, and also because they simply did not want to spend the rest of their careers tied up in battling with environmental consultants. What one sees by this approach by Mr. Pruitt, this transparency, is really an attempt to give these consultants an opportunity to find what we call blemishes. And in any large study like Harvard's “Six Cities,” there's a potential for minor blemishes. Instead these get magnified into being terrible scars rather than blemishes, and the Harvard scientists would have to defend themselves forever on this rather than doing the new research needed.”

This whole issue gets into this skepticism that we see from the administration and many people in this country about expertise. Why do we have to trust people who work at universities and think tanks in Washington? Where does their authority come from? So how does Goldstein defend the scientific process from charges that academic researchers could work towards conclusions that would further their careers? He says they are motivated by science. While environmental consultants, hired by industry, have a very different reward system.

“Consultants get paid if they can find a potential problem with any study, as opposed to academic scientists who, if there is a potential problem, they are going to lose their grants and not get promoted.  It’s not really any different than a defense attorney who's really good at getting someone who is guilty off because that's who the guilty people are going to want to hire again. It doesn’t matter whether it's right or wrong.”

So who who would this rule hurt and who would benefit? Goldstein says it certainly will benefit industry in the short term. And in the long term? 

“It will benefit all those including environmental groups that would prefer to have their advocacy triumph over facts and science. I'm very worried about some of the environmental groups, not all --  Environmental Defense Fund is doing a great job - but some of the environmental groups whose email lists I'm on are basically full of phony science as well as the industry groups like the American Chemistry Council which are doing their best to take advantage of this. It's just a matter of, do people believe that we can get ahead as a nation with advocacy on one side or the other rather than on facts.”

So, big picture, what does Goldstein think this rule says about this administration's view of science?

“It's part of a concerted effort to attack EPA science. Science is just another political game that they can play. That's all it is. It has nothing to do with truth or not truth; it has nothing to do with whether or not it helps in the long run to forward the goals of this country. It is a focus of a very short run mentality that basically says anybody who doesn't agree with us is inherently evil and we should not allow them to play in our sandbox.”

The public comment period for the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule is open until May 30th. You can file a comment here.

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Mentioned in the podcast:

The Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule

Harvard's "Six Cities" Study

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

Bernie Goldstein

Environmental Defense Fund

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This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier and produced by Andy Kubis. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project.

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