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Meaningful Transparency at EPA

A Framework for Rationalizing Approaches to Promote Open Science and Data Sharing for Evidence-Based Policymaking

In modern society, transparency about how government agencies operate facilitates accountability and oversight, thereby encouraging not just effective governance but also public trust in agency decisions. Within the scientific enterprise, transparency supports new knowledge creation as well as the use of scientific research in policy decisions.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken significant steps to operate transparently throughout its history, like most federal agencies, more work is needed for EPA to develop a holistic approach for applying transparency throughout agency activities. With the growing prevalence of the open-science and open-data movements, policymakers must give further attention to how EPA can and should advance as the agency plans for the future. Recognizing the array of laws, policies, and priorities implemented by EPA to take into consideration, this paper considers the extent to which EPA makes information accessible and useful. Whether scientific evidence for a scientific community or open data for the broad American public, EPA has an ever-evolving information-management role.

This report presents a landscape summary of the various policies implemented by EPA, covering science-integrity, data-quality, and information-management policies as well as a discussion of EPA efforts to improve access to both EPA-funded research and non-EPA-funded research used in policy decisions. This report also applies government-wide initiatives and new mandates for evidence-based policymaking to EPA.

This report offers a conceptual framework for applying EPA’s existing policies related to transparency to examine how policymakers might consider further modifications to the agency’s transparency approaches in the coming years. The framework describes how different types of transparency affect stages of evidence building and use at EPA.

Over the next 50 years, those applying meaningful transparency at EPA might consider four themes:

  1. Prioritize Actions that Will Maximize Public Trust. EPA operates in a unique regulatory environment where nearly every action is under scrutiny by stakeholders. Maximizing public trust requires the agency to routinely renew and refresh its approaches. Full implementation of the new Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act at EPA would likely be a productive step.
  2. Incentivize Unparalleled Transparency. Rationalizing transparency approaches will allow for active engagement in open-science and -data initiatives while protecting privacy and confidential data. EPA policymakers must recognize that what is relevant for scientists may differ from what is relevant for the general American public—thus, policymakers should consider additional steps to improve communication around EPA activities.
  3. Articulate Distinctions Between Science and Policy. EPA staff must take the necessary steps to clearly articulate when decisions are science-relevant and when they are policy-relevant to efficiently implement the agency’s science-integrity policy.
  4. Enable Public Interpretation of Complex Information. EPA staff should support efforts to engage the public through trusted intermediaries to help translate and convey key operational, scientific, and regulatory concepts to the average member of the American public.

As EPA’s work to protect human health and the environment continues, high-quality and reliable information will be vital to fulfilling the agency’s mission. Ensuring that the agency has an infrastructure to manage and use high-quality data is essential to EPA’s future success.

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