WASHINGTON (CN) – Scientists and lawmakers were divided Wednesday as they debated the possible benefits and pitfalls behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to implement a proposed transparency rule for scientific study.
The public comment period for the transparency rule ended in August.
On its face, the rule sounds like a great idea, Senator Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, told panelists and fellow members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“Clearly, you want transparency and … good science, but I don’t think what’s being clearly stated is that despite this very great message of ‘we want transparency,’ [the rule] won’t actually move the ball forward but backward [while] hurting public health,” he said.
This has been a point repeated by critics of the proposed rule who argue if put into effect, the EPA would be able to consider only those scientific studies that include underlying data which is publicly available for analysis.
That stipulation, according to Rush Holt, chief executive for the American Association for the Advancement of Science is an “insidious dodge,” he said.
The rule does more to exclude valid scientific findings from the regulatory process than not, he explained.
This is obvious, Holt said, because the “architects and proponents of these proposals present them as part of a regulatory agenda” and not a scientific one.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, has championed the rule.
Earlier this year, he introduced the Secret Science Reform Act, a bill which he argued would ensure “independent validation” of data and make it possible for science to be reproduced on a mass scale, a formula that he and other republicans on the committee like Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota consider to be the “gold standard” guiding scientific validity.
Holt told the committee he takes issue with that valuation because it suggests that good science can only be verified or conducted through replication alone.
But replication is just one part of the scientific process, Holt said.
“It’s really a red herring to say replication is what is necessary. Verification can come in various ways through repeating the experiment but even most experiments are hard to repeat exactly,” he said. “There are many circumstances where experiments can’t be repeated but can be verified through peer review and independent verification.”
Putting “studies in the context of other studies” is “how science works,” he said, noting that the most obvious example are research projects which study human illness due to pollutants.
“You don’t need to know the names of victims who breathe dirty air or drink tainted water to know the science is done right,” Holt said. “Furthermore, using only studies that can be repeated precisely would eliminate [research on] emissions of smelting plants that no longer exist or studies of a natural disaster that can shed light on continuing environmental insults.”
Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, disagreed with Holt.
Calabrese is considered to be an outlier by many in the scientific community because of his position on low dose radiation exposure.
He bucks current regulations which state any exposure to radiation can cause cancer and he’s historically argued that low doses can be beneficial.
Those positions have been contested by both the National Research Council and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
But under the EPA’s current leadership, Calabrese’s positions have found a home.
EPA quoted him in a press release announcing the rule’s rollout.
Shortly after, EPA changed language on its website stating “any” risk of radiation could cause cancer to “some.”
On Wednesday, Calabrese couched his support of the proposed rule – and the stipulation around replication – by citing his low dose/high dose theory again.
“Replicating is the gold standard; especially when you’re dealing with something like low dose radiation exposure. High dose is one thing – when you overwhelm systems and can see effects. But human exposure at much lower levels, you want to see if there are adverse effects… you want to be able to see if these findings are [able to be] reproduced,” he said.
The current formation at the EPA doesn’t allow for this broadly, he added, saying the agency’s process behind determining data sets behind the scenes is often “flawed.”
“Secret science,” he conceded, doesn’t always mean bad science.
But he expressed concern that “secret science” also hides issues around relevancy, like animal-based research used for human applications.
But this argument against “secret science,” Sen. Booker later noted, was the same one used by the tobacco industry years ago.
“Process-based hurdles that make it tougher for and would prohibit EPA from using a study unless its considered replicable? This is déjà-vu all over again,” Booker said.