Regulated industries pay close attention to how regulators use scientific data, because the stakes are high. While scientific knowledge may evolve rapidly, regulatory processes — and the business decisions that rely on them — tend to proceed more deliberately. As a result, the regulated community has long pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to base its decisions only on scientific information that is present in the public domain and thus subject to greater scrutiny.

On January 6, 2021, EPA finalized its long awaited anti-“secret science” rule, which requires EPA both to disclose the science on which significant regulatory actions are based and to assign weight to scientific evidence in part on whether underlying data is available. EPA frames this rule as an incremental, internal process-oriented step toward the transparency that is an essential part of the scientific method. Businesses in the regulated community should not expect to be able to point to this rule to control evidence coming into site-specific rulemaking, but may benefit from increased investor confidence that EPA actions with industry-wide impact will be based on data available for independent validation.

Scope of the Rule

The rule, entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information”, applies to the two categories of EPA actions indicated in the title: the promulgation of significant rules, such as those that have nationwide impact, and the dissemination of scientific information likely to have nationwide policy- or decision-making impacts. Furthermore, the rule targets EPA’s analysis of only one type of scientific evidence, dose-response data, which are facts that characterize the relationship between the amount of an exposure to a substance and the observation of an effect.

How EPA Will Evaluate Dose-Response Data

The key provision of the rule is a three-step funneling process to winnow the universe of “convincing and well-substantiated evidence” relevant to making a decision about relationship between exposure to a substance and an effect:

  • First, EPA must identify a subset of the universe of evidence from which it could “characterize a quantitative relationship” between exposure and effect.
  • Second, EPA must designate as “pivotal science” the particular studies on which it could rely to reach its own conclusion about the quantitative relationship between exposure and effect.
  • Third, EPA must identify whether those particular studies allow for reanalysis of results (actual validation is not required). While EPA may consider all studies available to it, the rule requires it to give greater consideration to those studies that can be independently validated. For those studies at the end of the funnel whose data cannot be readily reanalyzed, the rule sets out factors EPA must consider when determining how much weight to assign their results.

The rule also requires EPA to identify the science that serves as the basis for significant regulatory action and to state the reasons for relying on any studies based on dose-response data that is not available for reanalysis.

A Lasting Move Toward Transparency?

Regulations issued in the waning hours of a presidential term often can be rescinded by executive action or under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA allows certain of these regulations to be vacated by a joint resolution of Congress. EPA has taken the position that the CRA does not apply here because this is an internal “housekeeping” regulation. Whether it applies or not is likely to among the potential challenges the “secret science” rule faces in court in rulemakings involving human health. We will keep you posted on how any court challenges progress.