In its first year, the Trump administration has amassed a dismal record on science and science advice. Throughout the federal government, political appointees have misrepresented scientific information, overruled the recommendations of scientific experts, scrubbed scientific content from websites, and even reportedly forbidden some staff from describing their work as “science-based” in budget documents. Not only has President Trump broken with his modern-day predecessors by failing to appoint a presidential science advisor, he has so far filled just 20 of the 83 government posts designated by the National Academies of Science as key science and technology positions.
Now a new report, Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees, from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests the problem is even worse than previously recognized. Reviewing the activities of 73 science advisory committees across the government, the data tell a story of underutilization and neglect of science advice. Among the findings:
- Science advisory committees at the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have met less often in 2017 than at any time since 1997, when the government began collecting such data.
- At the DOE, the EPA, and the Department of Commerce, fewer experts serve on science advisory committees than at any time since 1997.
- In 2017, nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the 73 science advisory committees reviewed met less frequently than their charters direct.
As the report notes, the government’s system of some 1,000 federal advisory committees plays an important role in alerting federal officials to the policy implications of the latest scientific research, often with major consequences for Americans’ health and safety, from the outbreak of deadly diseases to environmental and national security threats.
Interviews with former and current advisory committee members fill in much anecdotal detail. For instance, the Department of Interior stalled the activity of all of its over 200 federal advisory committees this May, nominally so that they could be reviewed. In the meantime, Secretary Zinke and his Department made major decisions to shrink public monuments and federal lands without the input from its resource advisory panels commissioned as a check on these very activities. In addition, the DOI dismissed members of the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science and quietly disbanded the committee charged with offering recommendations to the agency on advancing natural resource management decisions while considering the impacts of climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board has been hit by Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive to purge EPA-funded scientists from its ranks, replacing many of them with industry representatives. Not only that, but since announcing the change to the roster in November, the SAB has held no meetings, stalling the SAB’s typical review of the agency’s expected regulatory actions (or in this case, deregulatory actions) advising the EPA on the scientific and technical information that should be reviewed before undertaking such actions. The absence of SAB feedback means that there is no scientific peer review on Pruitt’s decisions to roll back protections like emissions standards and improvements to chemical facility accidental release plans.
In some heartening developments, elected officials, scientists, and concerned citizens are now launching efforts both to push back against questionable administrative activities and to bolster science advice avenues that have been cut off or greatly diminished.
Members of Congress have called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate Administrator Pruitt’s EPA-wide directive on advisory committees. One member of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Robyn Wilson, dismissed as recipient of a current EPA grant, has refused to resign from the board and is now suing the agency. Scientific societies are forming “shadow” advisory committees to monitor the activities of now-politicized committees, including one formed by the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP). New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, is leading a coalition of states to fill in the gaps left by NOAA’s disbanded Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. Scientists and concerned citizens across the country are asking elected officials to hold agency heads accountable for their questionable interpretations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act while actively nominating themselves and their peers to serve on advisory committees seeking members to ensure that agencies have talented experts at their disposal.
But despite these efforts, the damage is significant. Expert input is vital for helping the government make smart decisions about the challenges facing our nation. By failing to engage the nation’s network of science advisory committees, the Trump administration sends the message that it prefers to make decisions based on politics and ideology rather than evidence. Revelations of widespread sidelining of science across the federal government should be a wake-up call for everyone who cares about making smart governmental decisions based on facts and evidence.