Joining other scholars and scientists in denouncing proposed federal regulations on scientific research, Harvard University president Drew Faust this week urged officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency to reject plans to restrict the type of studies regulators could use to craft new policies.
In a letter sent Monday to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Faust called the proposed regulations “fundamentally flawed” and said they risk “not just erosion of the public trust . . . but also progress on improving the health and well-being of our communities and our nation.”
In April, Pruitt proposed a rule, called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” that he said would improve the science the agency relies on by ensuring that all the data it uses is available to the public.
“The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end,” Pruitt said in a statement at the time. “The ability to test, authenticate, and reproduce scientific findings is vital for the integrity of [the] rule-making process. Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives.”
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But critics say the proposal would significantly reduce the number of studies that policy makers could review, as researchers often use confidential health data. For example, as Faust noted in her letter, a landmark 1993 Harvard study linking air pollution to premature deaths relied on such confidentiality agreements with its subjects to protect their health records.
In a joint letter to Pruitt, the editors of some of the world’s leading scientific journals, including Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also criticized the proposed regulations, noting that some studies wouldn’t be possible without keeping subjects’ personal information confidential.
“It does not strengthen policies based on scientific evidence to limit the scientific evidence that can inform them; rather, it is paramount that the full suite of relevant science vetted through peer review, which includes ever more rigorous features, inform the landscape of decision-making,” they wrote. “Excluding relevant studies simply because they do not meet rigid transparency standards will adversely affect decision-making processes.”
In her letter to Pruitt, Faust defended Harvard’s research and said the university would live up to its promises to protect private personal records. The test of whether the university’s studies are sufficiently rigorous, she said, is whether they can be replicated and independently verified.
She noted that the university’s pollution study, which served as the basis for regulations that reduced particulate matter, has been criticized by Republicans as “secret science” because of the confidential personal information.
But that study and similar research have been verified by independent studies, she said.
“To call such science ‘secret’ is to misrepresent the scientific process,” Faust wrote. “Replication of results using different data, not revelation of personally identifiable health data, is the strength by which we should measure our science.”
If enacted, the proposed regulations could lead to “long-term damage” to the nation, she added.
“The proposed rule . . . effectively disqualifies the best available science from use in the regulatory process,” Faust wrote.
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