The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed excluding from consideration in setting environmental standards any studies whose raw, individual-level data are not publicly available. This proposal was preceded by the wholesale exclusion from the EPA’s scientific advisory boards of academic scientists who receive research grants from the agency – and their replacement by industry-funded scientists. It is hard to interpret these actions as anything other than an attack on the use of hard scientific evidence to set environmental standards.
Open science has growing support, and justly so. However, studies conducted at academic institutions and involving humans, which are regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPAA) and institutional review boards (IRBs), must maintain a basic regard for privacy. Great progress in understanding pollution’s effects has been made by adding exposure information to large cohort studies that were established to explore cardiovascular disease or cancer. Such studies have been used, for example, to analyze concentrations of metals in blood, urine, or toenails and to attribute air pollution exposure to people according to their residential address. Precisely because these studies include measurements of many potential confounding factors, it is difficult to make the data public without also making participants identifiable. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, a local newspaper published a map of the locations of deaths. It showed no roads, and the only geographic data included were neighborhoods. Yet researchers were able to correctly identify the residential address for most of the people who died.
It is difficult to believe that EPA leaders do not know that few human cohort studies could comply with their requirements – and therefore difficult not to conclude that the real purpose of the proposal is to eliminate a vast body of highly relevant data from consideration, resulting in a weakening of standards that are no longer supported by “sufficient scientific evidence.”
The attacks on science in the current political climate are real and dangerous. The EPA has been under a gag order since the new administration took office. Please read my blog “Chemicals Found in Many U.S. Streams” posted on April 28, 2017. Just enter “EPA” in the search box in the upper left hand corner of my blog page. This study was completed prior to the gag order but published after the gag order with no comment from the EPA who sponsored the study.
This anti-science trend is reminiscent of my high school world history class study on the Dark Ages. I have always found it hard to believe that people could be so ignorant, even a thousand years ago. Those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
Source: August 30, 2018 The New England Journal of Medicine