Wagner actually led and then wrote both of those studies. She said the proposed scientific reform was “extremely problematic.”
In Thursday’s edition of Nature, her warning was co-authored with Liz Fisher, a professor of environmental law at Oxford; and Pasky Pascual, a recently retired data scientist and lawyer for the EPA.
The experts are most critical of a so-called scientific-transparency rule first proposed by Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the EPA. As I wrote in July, the rule would effectively bar the agency from using public-health research—or any other research that relies on private medical records—when issuing rules to limit water pollution, air pollution, or the use of toxic chemicals. Though Pruitt has resigned, the proposal remains on track to become official EPA policy.
The Pruitt proposal “applies retroactively,” Wagner told me, meaning it would force the EPA to revise—and possibly weaken—nearly every rule protecting human health from air, water, or chemical pollution issued in the agency’s 48-year history.
That proposal has been condemned by nearly 70 scientific and public-health professional organizations, as well as by Harvard, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the editors of Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The experts also criticize an EPA directive issued by Pruitt in 2017 that remains in effect. That memo barred any university scientist who has received a research grant from the EPA from serving on an EPA scientific-advisory board or acting as a peer reviewer of EPA regulatory analysis. Notably, it did not put industry scientists under the same restrictions, even if they are employed by a company that could be financially hurt by EPA regulation.
Since the rule was issued, “at least a few respected scientists have been removed from EPA science-advisory boards because they were not willing to abandon their EPA-funded research,” the authors write. “To our knowledge, there is no precedent for such a unilateral exclusion of federal grantees as peer reviewers” in either federal law or academic practice, they add.
The experts also criticize the HONEST Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, a pair of bills that would constrain the EPA similarly to the proposals above. Both bills passed the House of Representatives last year but seem unlikely to become federal law during this Congress.
Why are all these reforms so unprecedented? According to the authors, each of them places some stage of the scientific process under political direction. For decades, they write, the EPA and other federal agencies have followed a “two-step process” when consulting science: First, scientific staff have reviewed existing research and summarized and synthesized it for political staff. Then that political staff “can accept, ignore, rerun some of the analysis, or reinterpret the results.”