How Far Have Agencies Come Toward More-Inclusive Science Advice?

May 9, 2022 | 3:59 pm
Highsmith Archive/LOC
Genna Reed
Director of Policy Analysis

Recently, UCS organized a sign-on letter endorsed by 10 scientific, professional, and academic organizations, asking 24 federal science agencies about their progress toward advancing more inclusive science advice. You can find the full text of the letter below or at this link.

One year ago, President Biden’s 2021 Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking ordered agencies to send an analysis of the practices and membership of science advisory committees to the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

At that time, to help hold agencies accountable for making concrete changes ensuring that committee membership was inclusive and representative of a variety of racial, ethnic, gender, and other identities and lived experiences, we sent a similar letter affirming the importance of the charge and offering resources from the sixteen signatory groups. Throughout the summer and fall of 2021, we received responses from roughly a quarter of the agencies contacted: the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Census Bureau, National Institutes of Health, Health Resources and Services Administration and Department of Transportation. The responses all suggested that the agencies were prioritizing the memo’s charge but, at that time, none spelled out their planned actions to make lasting changes.

To date, when it comes to making science committees more diverse, EPA appears to have made the most significant public effort. The agency issued press releases last summer noting that it had staffed its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Science Advisory Board with the largest number of women and people of color in the committees’ histories. It also adopted language, although vague, acknowledging the importance of the diversity of its committee members. For example, the Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals’ charter reads “In accordance with Executive Order 14035 (June 25, 2021), EPA values and welcomes opportunities to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility on its federal advisory committees. EPA’s federal advisory committees have a workforce that reflects the diversity of the American people.” In order to track its progress internally, EPA also plans to issue a voluntary Ethnicity, Race, Gender, and Disability Self-identification form for nominees to its committees, for which it is now taking public comments until June 21st.

Building on progress so far

EPA has taken some good first steps, but there’s much more to do to ensure that practices instituted now will last through future political administrations. Without a definition of “diversity” for these committees, without more thoughtful data collection that is shared with the public, and without more formal changes to established practices and norms like committee charters, recruitment plans, and appointment criteria, any progress that is made in current staffing can easily be walked back with a change in administration.

We want to help guard against this risk.

We believe that broader, more diverse representation on science advisory committees will lead to more comprehensive and equitable decisionmaking at the federal level. Progress will mean more rich, complex, and valuable expert input that can serve as a model for science advice across the United States and abroad. UCS will continue to work with the scientific, professional, and academic communities and with OSTP and federal agencies to ensure that this charge is taken seriously and that underrepresented scientists have a seat at the science advisory table, across the government.

Here’s the text of latest letter we sent, from 10 signatory organizations, to federal agencies:

Re: Following up on Agency Efforts to Diversify Federal Advisory Committees

One year ago, the undersigned scientific and academic organizations wrote a letter in support of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in federal science advice, as laid out in the Biden Administration’s January 27th Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. The memo kickstarted a government-wide process that involved agency analysis of their own committee policies and practices, including membership. These reports have so far not been made available to the public, with the exception of EPA.

Since our original letter, we have received formal responses from just a quarter of the agencies we contacted and have met with just two agencies. While these responses were supportive of the effort and alluded to forthcoming agency actions, we have not yet heard about any specific plans to formalize internal policies or practices that would make committees more inclusive. Further, there was a lack of information about efforts to encourage equity on advisory committees in the Equity Action Plans issued by agencies this month.

We are writing today to ask agencies for more information on their internal progress to increase diversity, experience, and expertise of scientists serving on these committees. In particular, we are interested in the following:

  • Whether agencies have begun collecting internal data on these efforts that would allow for an honest look at their own strengths and shortcomings and would help external researchers and the public to understand whether committees are becoming more inclusive.
  • Whether agencies have updated committee charters to include more explicit and inclusive language on qualifications for members. These qualifications should not necessarily be limited to individuals with terminal degrees in a particular field, tenured academics, or individuals solely within STEM fields. Scientific expertise could include individuals with experience living, working, and conducting community science in environmental justice communities, and/or holders of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), for example.
  • If and how agencies have changed committee membership selection processes to include a range of backgrounds and experiences within the committee’s definition of “balance” and explicitly ask for demographic information on committee nomination forms.
  • If and how agencies have defined “diversity” as they have worked on making committees more representative of a wider group of individuals.
  • If and how agencies have changed incentive structures, such as compensation for committee meeting time, to recruit a broader pool of the best candidates, including qualified early-career scientists, and reduce barriers to participation for open committee positions.
  • If and how agencies have included in efforts to solicit committee nominations outreach to:

–Academic institutions that serve historically underrepresented communities, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Asian American and Native Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions and their consortia (i.e. American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AJHEC), Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities), and institutions that serve higher rates of Pell Grant recipients, rural, first-generation, and other similarly underrepresented communities.

–Administrators and principal investigators of existing agency programs, and their networks, which fund and support the advancement of underrepresented scientists, for example: the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Institutional Training Grants and Research Education Programs, the National Science Foundation’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) and HBCU Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering (HBCU-RISE), the US Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education Federal TRIO Programs, and other relevant programs.

Finally, we hope that your agencies will consider collaborating with some of the signatory organizations, including the National Society of Black Engineers Public Policy SIG, on educational webinars, workshops, trainings, or conference sessions that will provide scientists and experts with the information and tools they need to understand why federal advisory committee service is a valuable professional experience and how they can apply to openings on relevant committees.

We look forward to hearing more from you about the progress that has been made to advance scientific integrity through diversity, equity, and inclusion at your agencies and advisory committees. You may contact Genna Reed at the Union of Concerned Scientists at [email protected] to discuss the contents of this letter or to schedule a meeting with representatives from the signatory organizations.

Sincerely,

Union of Concerned Scientists

500 Women Scientists

American Association of University Professors (AAUP)

American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE)

American Public Health Association (APHA)

Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences

Global Council for Science and the Environment

Human Impact Partners

National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Public Policy SIG

Society of Women Engineers

About the author

More from Genna

Genna Reed is the director of policy analysis in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she leads research on political and corporate influences on science-informed decision making—working to inform the public about issues where science is stifled or obscured, and to ensure that federal, state, and local policies are based on rigorous, independent science.