Unease. Frustration. Indignation. Experts serving as members of federal advisory committees are being frozen out of the very avenues that were designed to encourage external input on scientific issues to the federal government.
A new Center for Science and Democracy report released today, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, reveals the Trump Administration’s widespread under-utilization of science advice in its first year.
In an effort to cut science out of the equation, this sidelining has taken different forms: Meetings have been postponed, cancelled, or abbreviated. Experienced experts have been dismissed. Rules governing committee membership have been altered to ease the stacking of committees with industry-affiliated scientists, and to crowd out independent experts. In some cases, committees have been disbanded entirely, or placed in limbo for agency-wide “review.”
What we found
In this report, we analyzed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Interior (DOI), Food & Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Department of Commerce (DOC). We also interviewed more than 30 current and former advisory board members.
We found that last year, the DOE, EPA, and DOI met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997. At the DOE, DOC, and EPA, fewer experts are serving on advisory committees than at any time since 1997. And nearly two-thirds of the 73 committees surveyed are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.
And this decrease in activity isn’t just as a result of it being the first year of a new administration. Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016, while membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.
Neglect, disregard, and egregious politicization
This blatant neglect of committees at the DOI made headlines this week when 10 out of 12 members of the National Park System Advisory Board at the Department of Interior resigned due to frustration that the Secretary had failed to meet with them or schedule a single meeting for the committee in 2017. Its members were not consulted when making important decisions about our national parks, just as DOI’s resource advisory councils, including one in Utah, were not consulted when deciding to shrink monuments in those jurisdictions.
The disregard of science advice has gone well beyond neglect. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the 25-year-old Food Advisory Committee that examined issues like nutrition and food safety and was the agency’s only committee dedicated solely to food issues. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”
And in the most egregious politicization of science advisory boards, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning any scientist who currently receives a research grant from the EPA from serving on advisory committees. Pruitt’s directive has radically reshaped the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientifically Counselors (BOSC), and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA SAB.
Experts are clamoring to be heard
Advisory committees operate differently across agencies and for good reason. They have different missions and require expertise spanning disciplines and fields. The one thing that all of these committees have in common is that they are composed of highly distinguished experts that are eager to get to work. In over 30 interviews held with members of a range of advisory committees, there was a resounding interest in resuming advisory activities and discussing the pressing issues under the relevant agencies’ authority that require their attention. Why waste the time of these individuals unless their time and potential science-based recommendations aren’t of any interest?
This suppression of information at this level makes it easier for Trump and his political appointees to make progress at deconstructing the administrative state, removes a vital check on the work being done at agencies, and prevents the best available science from being considered in the first place.
Policy decisions are based on a variety of factors, but if independence scientific analysis isn’t included as a consideration, then we’re flying blind—which might in fact be the actual goal for this administration. Why else would you neglect your own science advice infrastructure? Imagine a high school basketball coach unwilling to listen to 20 Steph Currys waiting eagerly on the sidelines with a slate of play options that would easily win his team the game. Why not listen unless your plan was to lose all along?
We can’t afford to let the Trump administration continue to make regulatory decisions without taking the time to analyze impacts. And, no, evaluating just the costs to oil companies, chemical companies, and developers is not sufficient. Experts are clamoring to be heard and members of the public would prefer that policymakers make fully-informed decisions that protect our health, rather than half-baked decisions informed by politics alone.
We must all fight to raise the political price of sidelining science and scientists. Because when policymakers don’t have access to the best independent scientific input, they can’t effectively protect all of us.
Scientists serving on federal advisory committees or working in the government who perceive that their work is being sidelined should get in touch with the UCS Science Protection Project to get confidential advice on strategic action. And we should all continue to call on our elected officials to further investigate the ways in which this administration is disregarding the government’s own scientists and external advisors, and what its squandering of this resource means for public health and safety.