Federal Science Advisory Boards Under Threat: Why Scientists Should Get Involved

June 9, 2017 | 10:00 am
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Serving on a science advisory board for a federal agency is an interesting and in many ways rewarding experience for a scientist. I have been on a research advisory board for the Navy, advisory boards for assessing the impacts of climate change, and for the National Academy of Sciences as well on several international boards. I always find the work challenging, I learn a lot and I feel like I am making a real contribution to both science and policy-making. So, it is an honor to serve even when providing advice on contentious topics.

In many cases, these positions are uncompensated, except for travel costs, and are “extra duties” for busy scientists. Four to six meetings a year are common.  But since we all care deeply about our work and have gone through years of training and dedicated involvement in research to develop expertise, it feels great to bring that expertise to bear to advise agencies on their research programs, or guide them to use the best scientific evidence in achieving their missions.  I have had the opportunity to summarize the scientific evidence on the impacts of climate change on the oceans, describe how the approach of ecosystem-based management may guide agency activities, and summarize how STEM education can connect to ocean education for multiple agencies, among other topics.

Scientific advisory boards are a direct extension of the independent peer review process that has served science well for decades. So the community should not only embrace the use of these boards, but advocate for their independence from political influence fiercely.

Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that the new Administration may be on course to politicize the science advisory process. Recently, several members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors were not reappointed for the conventional second term (usual practice is to rotate off most boards after two terms). At the time, agency political appointees noted that more scientists employed directly by regulated industries should be appointed instead.

At the same time, meetings of advisory boards at the Department of Interior have been put on hold and their fate is unclear as of this writing.  Science advisory boards are in critical danger of being politicized. That is not necessarily unprecedented, but it hasn’t worked out well before, and will not again if allowed to stand.

So how do these boards work? In general, science advisory boards in any federal agency are under the auspices of the Federal Advisory Committee Act or FACA. That means that the process for nominating members for the board must be public, and the meetings of the board must be open to the public. Conflicts of interest for board members must be disclosed, meetings noticed to the public and opportunities for public comment during meetings provided. In general, boards operate on a consensus model, though that isn’t required.

In my time on various boards I have served with academic scientists, some from research institutes, industry and other non-governmental organizations. All the members were appointed for their scientific expertise, and most particularly, not to “represent” any particular interest organization or viewpoint. We always had open discussions about potential real or perceived conflicts of interest and got to know each other so that we could exchange views freely in the best tradition of science. We shared the (often substantial) work, including the writing of reports. Most importantly, the agencies seemed to directly utilize our work. I never felt that the time was wasted or the agency was just going through the motions of peer review just to tick a box on a form.

In the current political rhetoric, the call for “more scientists from industry” and “greater geographical representation” might make for a political talking point but it makes little sense if you want the best advice. The boards shouldn’t be for representing interest groups! States, tribes, industry, non-governmental organizations, and the public have other opportunities for input into the policy process. Those opportunities can be improved, extended, made more balanced (regulated industry plays the dominant role by far), but not by corrupting the process of obtaining science advice.

So what should the science community—and individual scientists—do? First and foremost, get involved! As noted above, nominations to boards, including self-nominations, are a public process. At the moment, there is a call for nominations for nine positions on the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors, and in September there is likely to be a call for as many as 15 positions on the EPA Science Advisory Board. Then there is the EPA Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and many other boards in other agencies across government. The Interior Department needs experts in ecology, endangered species protections, wildlife and fisheries management, climate impacts in diverse habitats, and many more disciplines. The Departments of Energy, Defense, Agriculture, and Commerce advisors play a role in shaping the large science programs in these agencies.

Do you think you might be willing and able to take on one of these important tasks? Do you know some other great scientists that could really have an impact? Then put forward your name and curriculum vitae. If scientists don’t stand up, then it will be all the easier to pack the boards with special interests.

So Stand Up For Science—and let’s make sure that science advisory boards really do advise our agencies with independent science.