Science Advice Shouldn’t Be at the Whim of a President and His Appointees

October 1, 2019 | 8:26 pm
Dave Stone
Genna Reed
Director of Policy Analysis

News is beginning to trickle out about advisory committees that will no longer be used by the federal government as the deadline for agencies to arbitrarily cut one-third of their advisory committees was yesterday, September 30. It has only been three months since President Trump issued an executive order that called upon agencies to terminate a third of their advisory committees in the name of cost savings.

The first two committees confirmed to be cut are the Invasive Species Advisory Committee at the Department of Interior (established in 1999) and the Marine Protected Areas Advisory Committee at the Department of Commerce (established in 2000). Both committees were not included on a list of other advisory committees to be continued by Presidential authority, announced by an executive order on Friday evening.

According to The Hill, neither agency provided the criteria used to determine that these committees were no longer needed. Those criteria are almost certainly being withheld because it would be impossible to justify that a committee dedicated to understanding how to protect ocean resources (marine protected areas make up 41% of the marine waters) when climate change poses an immensely urgent threat to ocean health isn’t needed by our government. Or that a committee that provided unpopular advice on the need for improved effectiveness of government programs to protect our ports from invasive species (including bacteria that could impact the safety of our food system) was no longer needed at a time when the percentage of imported food is on the rise and inspections are laughably low. Unless of course the administration admits that it has no interest in advice that might hurt its political aspirations, like its promise of drilling on marine protected areas and letting companies police themselves on the safety of imported food and other goods.

It’s unclear how we’ll find out about the other committees that have been cut. It’s possible agencies will eventually get around to putting out a full list of terminated committees or the information will trickle down to committee members and then become public knowledge. This slow release of information to the public almost makes it seem like the President and agency heads know exactly how unpopular this proposal is and how damaging it will be…

This executive order was just another example of this administration seeking to cut science and information out of the government and decisionmaking process. Over the course of three years, this administration has been chiseling away at our government’s advisory network. It has failed to utilize experts on its own advisory committees, letting them sit dormant, has broken with process to appoint more conflicted individuals and fewer academics to EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and has disbanded EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s (CASAC) particulate matter review panel, which had been counted on for decades to inform science-based air standards. Implementing this executive order now takes a wrecking ball to the advisory network and will result in a huge drain on the government. Cutting out pathways to accurately communicate the truth means that decisions that impact lives will be less informed by experts in the field and by public comment.

But experts are not standing for being taken out of the equation. In 2018, members who were dismissed from committees because of their grant funding became plaintiffs in lawsuits against the EPA. Just last month, we saw National Weather Service scientists speak out after President Trump’s incorrect tweet about the path of Hurricane Dorian threatened to misinform Alabama residents about its threat. And next week, advisors who were fired by the Trump administration will meet anyway to discuss the science that should be informing EPA’s particulate matter standards. All of these actions are helpful reminders that the way this administration sidelines science on a regular basis is not normal.

Congress has also stepped up to conduct oversight and propose solutions. Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee recently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Wheeler asking a series of questions about why the agency chose to shed expertise and disband the particulate matter panel, in addition to a variety of other process breaches. And just last week, Representatives Casten, Tonko, and Quigley introduced the Preserve Science in Policymaking Act of 2019, which would prevent the President from unilaterally cutting agency-authorized advisory committees without career staff approval and a public comment period.

While I wish we didn’t have to fight to so hard to defend the role of independent advice in government decisionmaking, it’s encouraging to see so much energy around it. The Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to push back against this ill-advised order and to document its impact, but we need your help! If you are on a committee that has been cut as a result of this order, I want to hear from you. Tell me about what committee you were serving on, what kind of work you did during your service, and what the government will be missing without your committee’s advice. You can send me an email at [email protected].

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.