Let The Sun Shine In

Federal regulations are a stealth tax that can over time impose billions (if not trillions) of dollars in direct or indirect compliance costs on Americans and American businesses. They can destroy jobs and shutter or offshore important industries. They can crush dreams, smother opportunity, discourage innovation and quietly steal away our property rights.  

So, given all this, shouldn’t the public be able to review the data sets and the science underpinning federal regulatory decisions?  

We think so. And we’re frankly a little shocked that anyone would view this as a radical proposal. Yet there are those inside and outside of government — we’ll call them data-deniers — who want the EPA and other federal regulatory agencies to continue their dubious practice of basing regulatory decisions on “secret science” and non-public data, much of which also happens to be funded with taxpayer money.  

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler earlier this week explained why the reforms are necessary and overdue in the Wall Street Journal.  Science conducted in the open is more in keeping with the values and ethos of an open society than science conducted in the shadows, Wheeler wrote. “Only rarely has science benefited from secrecy, and that is usually for reasons of national security.” But there’s no similar justification for exempting EPA’s work from public scrutiny.  

Wheeler also wrote:

“Too often Congress shirks its responsibility and defers important decisions to regulatory agencies. These regulators then invoke science to justify their actions, often without letting the public study the underlying data. Part of transparency is making sure the public knows what the agency bases its decisions on. When agencies defer to experts in private without review from citizens, distinctions get flattened and the testing and deliberation of science is precluded.  

Our rule will prioritize transparency and increase opportunities for the public to access the “dose-response” data that underlie significant regulations and influential scientific information. Dose-response data explain the relationship between the amount of a chemical or pollutant and its effect on human health and the environment—and are the foundation of the EPA’s regulations. If the American people are to be regulated by interpretation of these scientific studies, they deserve to scrutinize the data as part of the scientific process and American self-government. 

Transparency is a defense of, not an attack on, the important work done by career scientists at the EPA, along with their colleagues at research institutions around the country. Increasing polarization around scientific questions stems in part from too many public policy debates setting science in a category apart from normal discussion or standards. By shining light on the science we use in decisions, we are helping to restore trust in government. We want the EPA to be able to say, “you can check our work.” 

It’s long been a pillar of bipartisan agreement that transparent government is more accountable government. It’s cliché but nonetheless true that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Why, then, is this commonsense reform generating such controversy? Who possibly benefits by keeping regulatory science operating in the shadows? What do the data-deniers have to fear from full disclosure if the “regulatory science” is sound? 

We’ve read a lot recently about how the apparent President-elect is chomping at the bit to reverse everything President Trump did in four years in one reactionary wave of counteractions and counterorders, as if nothing the man did in his tenure could possibly have merit. We think that would be a mistake. Rolling back this transparency measure would only deepen public doubts about the integrity and honesty of science – especially the science that is used to justify costly new expansions of government and the erosion of individual liberties. That would be a step not toward government openness and accountability, which is what we need more of, but back toward an unwarranted secrecy that might advance government’s interests but doesn’t serve the public interest.    

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