By Sarah Lasater
Student intern, Science and Technology Policy Program
This past June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reduce the number of federal advisory committees by at least one-third across all federal agencies. This move follows a two-year trend of shrinking committee membership and decreased committee activities. These changes have affected scientific advisors in particular: compared to 2016, science advisory committees saw a 20% decrease in the total number of meetings and a 14% decrease in membership in 2017 following Trump’s inauguration. While the number and membership of advisory committees have varied over previous administrations, the abrupt and dramatic reduction of advisory bodies mandated by Trump’s order threatens the vitality of our nation’s science and technology (S&T) enterprise and its influence on economic growth, STEM education, public health and national defense.
There are roughly 1,000 federal advisory committees currently in operation. They are composed of experts that advise agencies on topics ranging from long-term issues like nuclear safety and school improvement, to short-term problems like disease epidemics. Of these 1,000 committees, over 200 are designated as “scientific and technical” in nature, with experts from academia, industry, government and nonprofit organizations serving as members.
These federal advisory committees were formalized in 1972 by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). FACA requires transparency in committee activities: FACA meetings must be open to the public unless justified due to national security concerns by the president or the head of its affiliated agency. FACA committees can conduct research, produce reports, and provide recommendations for legislation and budgets. FACA has also been used as a way for Congress to check the executive branch, and has sometimes led to efforts to clarify transparency requirements, increase accessibility to committee members, and tighten control over operations. For example, legislation proposed in Congress in 2007 (H.R. 5687) and 2009 (H.R. 1320) would have required members be selected without partisan affiliation considerations, required they disclose conflicts of interests, and implemented further guidelines to facilitate impartial advising. However, these bills stalled in committee and were never enacted.
With the goal of assuring “good steward[ship] of taxpayers’ money,” Trump’s executive order asks agencies to review redundancies and assess committees’ relevance and value. The last time comprehensive review of FACA committees was in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that cut “not less than one-third” of advisory committees under FACA. Unlike the 1993 order, however, Trump’s decree also creates the opportunity to close, in addition to committees created by executive order or agency head, committees required by congressional statute. It requires agencies to draw up “detailed plan[s] for continuing or terminating such committees” and to draft “recommended legislation for submission to Congress.” Furthermore, Trump’s order specifically exempts committees that advise on the safety and efficacy of consumer products. Critics point to the exemptions as evidence that Trump’s order isn’t about saving money or helping citizens, but about supporting corporations.
The politicizing of science committees marks another step away from fact-based decision-making in the Trump administration. Trump has already disbanded several committees, including the National Climate Assessment Panel in 2017, and reduced the number of experts advising S&T efforts. Furthermore, political officials at several federal agencies have misrepresented scientific information, cleared scientific content from websites, ignored the recommendations of scientific experts, and have even forbidden Center for Disease Control staff from using the words “evidence-based” and “science-based” in budget documents.
Research shows that Trump administration committees have been less active than in previous administrations. While Trump recommissioned the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by executive over in 2016, he still has not appointed a single PCAST member, and the Department of Energy (DOE, responsible for funding PCAST during President Barack Obama’s second term) eliminated appropriation for PCAST from FY2018 and FY2019 budget requests. Moreover, Trump only recently appointed a chief science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier, in early 2019, halfway through this presidential term. Beyond committee inactivity, critics claim the “one-third” committee erasure is an arbitrary number, and the motivation of saving taxpayers money is misleading. Committee members are largely not compensated; if money is used for the committees at all, it is for occasionally paying travel expenses and federal support staff. Stan Meiburg, who worked at the EPA for 39 years before retiring in 2017, notes that the order is “very unwise” and that the committees operate on “small margins and produce tremendous returns,” often finding creative ways for the federal government to save money.
The government needs independent scientific advisers to shape federal policy and inform regulations. Getting rid of science advisory committees will not reduce costs, undermines agency missions, and puts the government at risk of implementing misinformed, or even dangerous, policies on national security, public health and American competitiveness.
This post originally appeared on the S&T Policy Medium blog.