California. Delaware. The District of Columbia. Iowa. Maine. Minnesota. Pennsylvania. New York.
Those jurisdictions cover a fairly broad geographic swath of the United States, don’t they? Last week, they joined forces to send the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a simple two paragraph letter that questioned its fundamental understanding of science.
What did the letter say? In effect, not much. It simply asked the EPA to consult with other organizations and gather feedback about its controversial transparency rule. According to this new policy, the Agency will only rely on the results of scientific studies if the researchers make their research data available to the public.
Who can argue with the principle of open and freely available information? In principle, no one can. But in practice, many types of data are kept confidential because of valid privacy concerns.
Consider, for instance, a researcher who collects Protected Health Information (PHI) from individuals who live in the vicinity of a toxic oil spill. Under federal law, such information cannot be shared with third parties, and certainly cannot be made public, without consent.
In such cases, many individuals are willing to share health information with private researchers. But they understandably balk at sharing their information with the public.
And what of all the older studies that researchers still rely upon to develop new research activities? If the scientists who produced those studies have destroyed the original data in accordance with standard confidentiality practices, will the Agency begin to act as if the older studies never existed?
Whether you support or oppose the transparency rule, it’s reasonable to ask how the Agency plans to address these pragmatic issues. Indeed, would any one be harmed if the Agency slows down, takes a deep breath, and gathers more feedback before it implements the rule?