Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

In Trump’s first year, science advice sees a marked decline

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, expert panels that provide key federal agencies with science advice have had fewer members and met less often than at any time since 1997, when the government started tracking such numbers, a new analysis concludes.

At least some of the decline appears to be attributable to a deliberate effort by the Trump administration to exclude scientists from the policymaking process, argues Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’s (UCS’s) Center for Science and Democracy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which issued today’s report.

The science panels—there are some 200 across the federal government—advise agencies on a wide range of policy issues, including environmental protection, drug development, and energy innovation, and help set priorities for research programs. Their members, who serve voluntarily, are typically drawn from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector.

In its analysis, UCS examined 73 panels that help shape policy at five agencies with a heavy emphasis on science: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the departments of energy and the interior.

The panels’ 2017 membership decreased by 14% from 2016, the last year of former President Barack Obama’s administration, and the number of times they met dropped 20%. The membership drop during Trump’s first year in office is notably high, the authors note. During Obama’s first year in office, membership decreased by 7%; during former President George W. Bush’s first year it dropped by less than 1%.

“The neglect of independent scientific advice seriously endangers the nation,” states the report from UCS, an advocacy group that has been critical of the Trump administration’s science, energy, and environmental policies. “Such advice is crucial to the federal government’s ability to make informed decisions on matters that have enormous consequences for public health and safety.”

If the decline in members and meetings is not part of a deliberate strategy by the Trump administration, “it’s a big omission because they proceeded pretty aggressively in making some regulatory decisions, mostly rollbacks, without asking for scientific advice from external experts,” Rosenberg says. As an example, he points to an apparent lack of scientific input into a recent FDA decision to delay a requirement that food labels specify how much sugar is added, he says. “Citizens and people all across the country should be concerned simply because it means the decisions will be more political and less transparent,” Rosenberg says.

The neglect of independent scientific advice seriously endangers the nation.

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Trump administration’s handling of some of the panels has stoked controversy. In June 2017, EPA broke precedent in deciding not to renew the terms of dozens of experts on its Board of Scientific Counselors and other advisory bodies. It also barred researchers who had received grants from the agency from serving on the panels. The agency then repopulated the panels with new members. Critics charge the move has skewed the panels toward industry viewpoints. The Department of the Interior, meanwhile, let expire an advisory committee on climate change and natural resource science.

The UCS report does not specify how much of the decline in committee membership is a result of specific actions such as nonrenewals, resignations of panelists, or suspensions and expirations of panels since Trump took office. Nor did it break out figures for advisory committees that are required by law to weigh in on new regulations or policies. (Other panels exist at the discretion of agencies.)

A decline in federal science advice?

During President Donald Trump’s first year, the number of members of science advisory panels and the number of meetings have fallen. The change is greater than seen during the first years of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Credits: (Graphic) D. Malakoff/Science; (Data) Union of Concerned Scientists

UCS did find that in 2016, before the Trump administration formed, about half of the panels were not meeting as often as their charters required. Under Trump, the portion has grown to two-thirds.

UCS supplemented its analysis by interviewing 33 current and former committee members. Some said a lack of meetings and other experiences made them feel underutilized and disrespected by the agencies they had been asked to serve. A member of FDA’s Science Board, for example, reported the panel met in 2017 through a phone teleconference attended by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, but the meeting had no agenda and lasted less than 15 minutes. An FDA spokesperson declined to comment.

At the Department of Energy (DOE), all but one of the 19 members of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) that had advised the Obama administration submitted their resignations to incoming Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a courtesy commonly offered by appointees when administrations change. But SEAB members told UCS they heard nothing from the department. A DOE official told UCS that the panel was “sunset”—or allowed to expire—in January 2017, although the department still lists the former members’ names on a roster on its website.

“I’ve just been surprised to see that the board has gone fallow,” says former SEAB member Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. SEAB had written useful reports about high-speed computing and the effectiveness of DOE’s 17 national laboratories, he told ScienceInsider.

“We’re at a moment when there are just so many difficult issues facing the Department of Energy,” Reicher said. “The secretary is not fully staffed up yet. … An entity like this could really help him sort through a lot of issues that hit him every day, a lot of tough decisions.”

EPA has not responded to a request for comment.