The Trump administration has made some highly visible moves to damage public health, like withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and proposing a budget that guts public-health programs. Less visible but equally concerning are moves that undermine or ignore longstanding methods for assuring the executive branch gets high-quality scientific guidance to inform its policy decisions. A new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists examines the functions of federal science advisory committees over the past year and reports “an unprecedented level of stalled and disbanded scientific advisory committees, cancelled meetings, and dismissed experts” – with profound consequences for our safety and health.
To produce the report, “Abandoning Science Advice: One Year in, the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees,” Genna Reed, Seth Shulman, Peter Hansel, and Gretchen Goldman examined the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies, and sub-agencies at CDC, EPA, FDA, the Department of Energy, Department of Interior, and Department of Commerce. (Disclosure: I work with UCS on scientific integrity projects, but wasn’t directly involved with this report.) They found that 62% of the committees met less often in 2017 than their charters direct them to, and that membership decreased 14% from 2016. Some agencies have disbanded committees or placed them on hold, or tilted advisory committee membership away from academia and towards industry.
Getting independent advice from experts allows federal agencies make appropriate policy decisions. Reed and her co-authors cite examples of advice on the impacts of phasing lead out of paint and gasoline in the 1970s (which had substantial benefits to children’s neurological development) and on warning patients and providers about an elevated risk of suicidal thinking in children and adolescents taking antidepressants. Today under the Trump administration, though, some agencies don’t seem to want to know about the health risks from climate change or toxic substances, or how we could better protect public health from these threats.
Losing independent environmental advice
While the disturbing trends of fewer meetings and reduced membership cross agencies, the analysis found particularly stark neglect of science related to environmental concerns.
At EPA, Reed and her colleagues found, the number of advisory committee meetings and committee membership are at their lowest levels since the government started recording this information in 1997 — but that’s not the worst of problem. In October, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that receiving an EPA grant is now deemed to disqualify a scientist from serving on an agency advisory committee, including the Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. This move is both unprecedented and self-defeating. Presumably, EPA grants are going to top scientists who are studying topics of great importance — so, aren’t those scientists the very people you’d want to have advising the agency? (I do know the answer to this question: They’re not the people you want advising you if your goal is to cut regulations designed to protect public health.) Not coincidentally, the number of industry representatives on EPA’s Science Advisory Board has now tripled.
The Department of Interior also logged a record low number of science advisory committee meetings, following a freeze on committee activities while the agency conducted a review of their responsibilities. After review, DOI terminated the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, which had advised the Secretary of the Interior on managing natural resources during climate change.
While most of the Department of Commerce science advisory committees continued to meet as directed in their charters, the agency failed to renew the charter of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. (Charters typically require renewal every two years in order to keep operating, and failing to renew them is a quieter way of disbanding them.) This committee had aimed to improve the National Climate Assessment’s scientific information in order to make it more useful to businesses, the public, and state and local governments.
Climate change is happening, whether or not the Trump administration wants to acknowledge it. Getting advice from experts about how to manage its impacts is only prudent, but the Trump administration seems more interested in appealing to those who deny science.
Shoring up science advice
Given the disturbing patterns this analysis revealed, the Union of Concerned Scientists makes three immediate recommendations:
Current and former science advisors should speak out when they discover that federal agencies and others in the government are sidelining important scientific work and findings.
The Government Accountability Office should ascertain whether federal agencies are appropriately carrying out the Federal Advisory Committee Act, especially given EPA Administrator Pruitt’s directive on advisory committee eligibility.
Congress should hold hearings on the status of science advisory committees throughout the government to investigate whether they are serving the public interest by functioning as directed by law.
In a blog post about the report, lead author Genna Reed also has this advice: “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.”
Over the past decades, the federal government has built up an impressive advisory committee infrastructure to help it apply scientific knowledge to policy issues that affect public health. Thousands of scientists have contributed their time and expertise in order to improve the health and safety of our air, water, food, drugs, health systems, and environment. Weakening science advisory committees will have consequences for public health for decades to come.