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EPA accused of undermining protection with data rule

Image: Victor Lauer, via Shutterstock

Journal editors say rule on data publication could be a ‘catastrophe’ for public health

The editors of six elite academic journals have warned that a proposed data publication rule from the US Environmental Protection Agency would compromise the agency’s core mission to protect the environment.

Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science, told Research Professional News that he and his fellow editors were worried the rule “would open the door to weakening of a lot of environmental regulations”.

The EPA says its controversial proposal, first mooted in 2018, will increase transparency by requiring all raw data to be made public for any studies being considered in the drafting of environmental regulations. But the rule has faced significant opposition from some members of the scientific community who say some vital evidence could be excluded from policymaking if it is based on confidential data that cannot be made public.

This, in turn, could mean regulations are weaker as data on, for example, the potential harm from pesticides or industrial chemicals cannot be considered.

In a joint statement, published in Science on 26 November, the editors of Science, Nature, PNAS, PLoS, The Lancet, and Cell say that many studies relevant to environmental regulation include individuals’ personal health data, and that ruling out such data could “harm decision-making that claims to protect our health.”

May Berenbaum, editor-in-chief of PNAS and one of the signatories, told Research Professional News “there are ways to obtain data without compromising the identity of people. To assert that everyone is entitled to know everything about everyone is a distortion of what transparency means.”

The editors also raise concerns that past regulation could be affected by the new rule, if it is applied when a regulation is updated. This could lead to “foundational science” on issues such as air and water quality being struck out, something the editors describe as “a catastrophe”.

The EPA has said the final text of the rule will not be submitted until 2020 and they will take into account all comments received through a public consultation.

The agency told Research Professional News that, under the rule, all studies will be “subject to a transparent review by qualified scientists” and it is considering ways to gain access to data without revealing the identity of the individuals.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe