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Ensuring the Independence of Scientific Advisory Committees

Problem: The Federal Advisory Committee Act became law in 1972 to ensure, among other goals, that the nation has access to the best objective scientific advice. Unfortunately, the integrity of many scientific advisory committees has been compromised in recent years. Officials have tampered with the panel selection process by subjecting nominees to political litmus tests that have no bearing on their expertise, and scientists with obvious financial ties to industries or products that are the subject of the committee's deliberations have been allowed to sit on and dominate certain panels.

Why it Matters: The scientific experts who advise the government should reflect the best minds in America possessing comprehensive, unbiased, and up-to-date knowledge to inform Congress and federal agencies.   Public policies that harm the public health and safety can result when federal agencies don’t have access to unbiased scientific advice.

Example: In 2002, the CDC Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention was preparing to recommend whether the federal standard on lead poisoning should be revised. The stakes for this panel’s decision were high: Millions of the nation's children, and their parents, depend on lead poisoning policies based on the best available scientific evidence and technical information. Just a few weeks before the committee's scheduled meeting, two scientists with clear ties to the lead industry were appointed to the committee. The Lead Industries Association had retained Dr. William Banner, a toxicologist, as an expert witness in an ongoing legal case between the State of Rhode Island and the lead paint industry. Dr. Kimberly Thompson, an assistant professor of risk analysis and decision science at the Harvard School of Public Health, had received funding from at least 22 groups with financial interests in the deliberations of the CDC panel. In 2004, while admitting that “lead in the body at any level is not good,” the committee recommended that the CDC keep the lead standard where it was, not lower it. 


Solutions: Strengthening the scientific advisory system should be a priority for the administration and for Congress.

  • Congress should enact legislation to reform the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  These reforms should give the public more information about the qualifications of advisory panel members, ban any political litmus tests for members, and ensure that any conflicts of interest among members are disclosed.
  • For committees whose mission is purely to provide objective scientific advice (as opposed to committees designed to gather input from stakeholders), committee members should be free of financial conflicts of interest.
    • If scientists and researchers with conflicts of interest are granted a waiver to serve on advisory committee because the agency believes that the benefit of their service outweighs the conflict, the existence of the conflict and the waiver document should both be made public.
    • Scientists who have taken public positions on issues should not be excluded from an advisory committee because of concerns about bias. Having a point of view does not preclude an objective assessment of the information presented to a committee. A scientist’s membership in a scientific association should not be considered evidence of bias, even if that association has a stated policy agenda.
  • Agencies should take concrete steps to ensure that inappropriate criteria such as party affiliation and political opinions are never a part of the process for selecting members of scientific committees. Agencies should select members of advisory committees based solely on their experience and technical qualifications in the topic the committees will address.
  • Agencies should ensure the process for selecting advisory committee members is transparent by instituting the following reforms:
    • Agencies should publicly announce their intent to form a new scientific advisory committee, or to select a new member for an existing committee.
    • Agencies should publish criteria for selecting committee members and should solicit nominations for committee membership.
    • Agencies should call for public comment on the charge to the committee.
    • After the selection process is complete, the agency should make basic information on committee members easily available to the public. This information should describe each member’s qualifications and background, and disclose past employers and funding sources.
    • Agencies should specify which advisory committees are expressly scientific and which are designed to gather stakeholder input.
  • Agencies should track the work of their scientific advisory committees and respond to their findings and recommendations.
    • Agencies should clearly state what product they require of each advisory committee, and set a timeline and work plan for creating that product.
    • Agencies should establish and enforce clear policies for how to incorporate committee findings and recommendations into agency decision making. Agencies should also publicly document any decision to overrule the recommendations of a scientific advisory committee, and provide a legitimate explanation of the decision.

 

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