January 18, 2018

Trump Administration Undermines Independent Science Advice

In First Year, a Record of Stalled and Disbanded Advisory Committees, Canceled Meetings and Dismissed Experts

WASHINGTON (January 18, 2018)—The advisory committees that federal agencies rely on for independent, expert scientific advice, are, by several measures, in the worst shape since the government began tracking them more than 20 years ago, according to the report “Abandoning Science Advice: One Year In, the Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science Advisory Committees” released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The report details how the Trump administration has not convened or filled slots on the committees and has, in some cases, watered down their scientific representation and even outright eliminated a number of committees.

“Federal agencies are supposed to consider the evidence when they’re making policy decisions that impact all of us,” said Genna Reed, lead author of the report. “If we don’t have access to the best available science, we can’t trust these agencies to protect and inform the public. We can’t afford to let these policies be based purely on politics or lobbying by powerful industries.”

UCS experts reviewed the membership and meeting schedules of 73 science advisory committees across 24 departments, agencies and sub-agencies, and interviewed current and former advisory board members. Some of the key findings in the report:

  • Last year, federal science advisory committees for the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997.
  • Nearly two-thirds of these committees are meeting less than they are directed to in their own charters.
  • Membership on advisory committees decreased 14 percent from 2016. That’s unusual even in a transition year—membership only decreased 7 percent in the first year of the Obama administration and less than 1 percent in the first year of the Bush administration.
  • At the Departments of Energy and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fewer experts serve on science advisory committees than at any time since tracking began in 1997.

In many cases, the disregarding of science advice goes well beyond neglect. At the Department of Interior, Secretary Ryan Zinke made the decision to radically cut down two national monuments in Utah while the department’s advisory committees were on hold, and terminated the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science entirely. The Food and Drug Administration completely disbanded the longstanding Food Advisory Committee that examined issues such as nutrition and food safety. And members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report no contact at all from the administration over the past year, with “no plans to reconstitute it.”

Nowhere has the politicization of science advisory committees been more egregious than at the EPA, where Administrator Scott Pruitt has pushed a new policy banning scientists from serving if they receive a research grant from the EPA. Pruitt has radically reshaped the agency’s key committees, breaking precedent by refusing to renew terms of committee members and tripling the representation of industry-affiliated scientists on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

“It’s clear that the administration is willfully neglecting, even undermining, independent scientific advice,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. “I’ve worked as a federal scientist and served on science advisory committees, and I can tell you that agencies just can’t make good decisions in the public interest if they can’t or won’t listen to the facts.”

The Trump administration’s disdain for independent scientific advice puts important public health and safety protections at risk. The work that federal agencies do monitoring pollution, evaluating chemical hazards, protecting worker safety, preventing the spread of disease, tracking and managing natural disasters and enforcing laws like the Clean Air Act depends on scientific input.

“The U.S. leads the world in science,” said Reed. “The experts and the institutions we have here are an incredibly valuable resource—a resource the administration is now squandering.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.