Op-ed: Secrets are no fun

Check out my most recent op-ed published earlier today in The Hill.


There are good secrets—like when a game show host is hiding a new car behind door number one. And then there are bad secrets—like the debt your kid racked up on his “emergency” credit card. When a regulatory agency hides the data it’s using to justify new rules it predicts will cost billions of dollars to implement, that certainly qualifies as a bad secret.

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on legislation that could improve the public’s access to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data: The Secret Science Reform Act would prevent the EPA from issuing regulations without disclosing the scientific studies used to justify those rules and increase transparency in the agency’s scientific processes.

The EPA recently issued several new air quality regulations, including limits on mercury emissions and carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that the agency estimates will cost billions of dollars to implement—costs that are expected to trickle down to most Americans in the form of higher energy bills. For instance, one study finds that EPA’s carbon dioxide rule will hike electricity rates by double digits for residents in 43 states.

But before the EPA finalizes expensive new pollution rules, the agency has to show that there is an adequate scientific justification for the new regulations.

The primary justification for the EPA’s recent air rules are two epidemiological studies: the “Harvard Six Cities Study” and the “American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II.” These studies are available to the public to review, but the underlying data sets used to justify their findings are not—despite repeated requests from Congress for access to this data. This means that independent researchers (those not affiliated with the EPA or the original studies) can’t analyze the data to verify the studies’ findings.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the reliance on “secret science” that raises red flags; problems with the agency’s scientific processes run even deeper.

In the next few weeks, the EPA plans to unveil new limits on ground level ozone, the primary component in smog. If the regulators get their way, the current standard of 75 parts per billion will be slashed by roughly 20 percent—a move that the EPA itself estimated would cost businesses up to $90 billion every year, making it one of the most expensive regulations ever issued. But is such a dramatic limit based in sound science?

Maybe not. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Drs. Julie Goodman and Sonja Sax highlight alarming problems with the EPA’s interpretation of ozone data, noting that agency failed to consistently evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of ozone studies; likely overestimated the health impact of ozone by failing to adequately account for the impact factors such as smoking, diet, and exercise could have on diseases attributed to ozone pollution; and even clearly misinterpreted the statistics in one scientist’s paper.

Transparency in science is crucial. With intense competition for government grants and private funding, there’s immense pressure to produce positive results, even when the data doesn’t support such findings. We’ve seen an alarming number of prestigious, peer reviewed journals forced to retract research papers after discovering serious flaws such as data manipulation.

When the EPA denies access to original data, there’s much more at stake than a journal’s reputation. The agency’s new regulations are expected to not just cost billions in implementation costs, but result in lost economic growth and jobs for everyday Americans.

Cherry picking research, misinterpreting studies, failing to disclose data—we all want clean air, but we should have reliable data and solid evidence to show these regulations will lead to measurable improvements in public health. We need greater transparency in science, and lifting the veil off EPA’s secretive processes is an excellent start. 

Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a wide variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture, and energy industries.