Secret science

Copyright 1999 Washington Times
February 11, 1999

When the Environmental Protection Agency announced big plans to regulate minute air particles two years ago, it did so with the loftiest intentions. Studies, said the agency, showed the particles were invisible killers, prematurely dispatching tens of thousands of people each year to an early grave; it was up to government to regulate them out of existence.

There was just one problem with the agency's high-minded campaign: There was no data to suggest just how dangerous the particles - which come from auto exhaust, barbecues and other sources -really are. Scientists who conducted the studies on which EPA based its rules refused to release the data. So no one could use them to verify their findings, which is common practice in the scientific community. That didn't stop the agency from pushing forward with its costly new rules, however.

Fortunately, the country may not have to suffer much more of this secret science. Under a new rule proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, all research subsidized with taxpayer dollars would have to be open to the people who paid for it. That is, scientists would have to release the raw data on which they have based their findings.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who introduced legislation last year authorizing the new rule, said it would increase confidence in the scientific credibility of agency rulemaking. "The taxpayers of America fund these grants," he told the Mobile, Ala., Register. "We need access to the decision-making process. It ought to be based on good science, and regulators ought to be able to defend the science."

Who could be against sound science? California Rep. George Brown for one. He and 20 other House lawmakers have written a letter to OMB, arguing that the proposal would, among other things, comprise the confidentiality of volunteers participating in research and raise administrative costs for universities and other research facilities. But the OMB rule would make data available under the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The rule also provides for a fee covering the cost of providing the data.

In the EPA case involving the air particles, the agency argued it was necessary to release underlying data because the data had been used in studies published in peer-reviewed journals; if scientific reviewers are satisfied that the findings are credible enough to publish, why isn't that good enough for taxpayers?

Publication is indeed an important standard in the scientific process. But it is not the only standard. It is quite possible to find scientists refuting - or at least not replicating - research after it has already appeared in a research publication. That's part of the scientific process.

What really worries EPA and Rep. Brown is that junk science used to justify agency rulemaking they favor may not be able to withstand scrutiny. That would kill the rule. So it's better to keep junk science a secret, better to waste taxpayer dollars on environmental problems that either don't really exist or don't pose serious risks, better to panic Americans and divert their attention from more serious problems?

This newspaper doesn't think so. OMB should insist on releasing tax-funded scientific data from its regulatory fetters. If it's sound science, no one should insist on keeping it secret.

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