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

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 (UCSs) Center for Science and Democracy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which issued todays report.

The science panelsthere are some 200 across the federal governmentadvise 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), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Energy and Interior departments.

The panels 2017 membership decreased by 14% from 2016, the last year of President Barack Obamas administration, and the number of times they met dropped 20%. The membership drop during Trumps first year in office is notably high, the authors note. During President Barack Obamas first year in office, membership decreased by 7%; during President George W. Bushs 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 which has been critical of the Trump administration s science, energy and environmental policies.Such advice is crucial to the federal governments 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,its 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.

The Trump administrations handling of some of the panels has stoked controversy. In June 2017, EPA broke precedent in deciding 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 . Critics charge the move has skewed the panels toward industry viewpoints. The Interior Department, 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 actionssuch as nonrenewals, resignations of panelists, or suspensions and expirations of panels since President 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.)

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 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 the FDAs Science Board, for example, reported the panel met in 2017 via 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 the UCS that the panel was sunsetor allowed to expirein January 2017, although the department still lists the ex-members names on a roster on its website.

Ive just been surprised to see that the board has gone fallow, says former SEAB memberDan 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 the Department of Energys 17 national laboratories, he toldScienceInsider.

Were 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.
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