President Donald Trump’s new order to cut the number of government advisory committees by a third is drawing condemnation from former government officials, scientists and environmental advocacy groups who say the committees provide a check against politically inspired regulatory reversals.
“It’s just another extension of this administration’s attack on science, an attack on transparency, and an attack on anything that can get in the way of this administration doing what it wants to do without need for experts to intervene in any way,” said Gina McCarthy, who led the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration and is now director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The order, issued Friday, requires each agency to abolish at least one-third of its current advisory committees by the end of September. The panels offer agencies scientific and other expert or independent advice on a variety of subjects and sometimes include representatives of the public, industry and interest or advocacy groups.
Trump’s order targets committees whose work the administration deems “obsolete” or whose costs it decides are “excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government,” but it doesn’t limit the cuts to those criteria.
There are currently approximately 1,000 advisory committees, including roughly 200 science advisory committees that advise the administration on issues including nuclear waste storage, ozone depletion, schools, highways, housing and the opioid epidemic.
The executive order aims to reduce the number of committees to 350 by blocking the formation of new committees until this lower number is met. Committees are typically limited to two-year charters and are subject to annual review by the GSA.
Sidelining Expert Knowledge
Advisory committees have played an important role in shaping federal programs and policies since the country’s founding, according to the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the committees. “Since President George Washington sought the advice of such a committee during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the contributions made by these groups have been impressive and diverse,” the GSA states.
The Trump administration, however, has been sidelining scientific advisers and advisory committees since it arrived. The EPA, in particular, has drawn controversy for barring researchers who receive EPA grant money from serving on its Science Advisory Board (SAB) while adding several new board members connected to the industries EPA regulates.
A report published by last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists found the Trump Administration had stalled or disbanded scientific advisory committees, cancelled meetings and dismissed experts at unprecedented levels since the government started tracking the data in 1997.
Still, the committees continue to serve as an important check on administration policies, said Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“It is really important that the experts have the opportunity to deliberate and issue their reports and answer the questions that are coming to them because all of that can be entered into the record,” she said. “It could be used as expert knowledge and information to challenge some of the worst deregulatory decisions coming out of this administration.”
‘Cornerstones of Credibility’
The committees play a key role for government agencies on a wide range of issues, said Thomas Burke, former EPA science advisor and director of the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
“If you look at federal advisory committees at EPA, they were set up for a reason, from children’s health to environmental justice, to the clean air advisory committee,” he said. “These have been cornerstones of credibility in science.”
Burke said he didn’t think cost cutting was behind the executive order.
“If you look at the annual budgets for even committees that meet regularly and have important tasks like the EPA SAB, it’s an incredibly small fraction of the overall costs of those agencies and it is so essential for the credibility of their decision making.”
The call for cuts to advisory committees is especially worrisome for addressing complex issues like climate change, McCarthy said.
“Climate science is complicated, it requires scientists who are experts in a variety of fields to look at all the lines of evidence that indicate that our climate is changing and that manmade emissions are a significant part of the reason for that,” she said. “And if we don’t continue to have real scientists engaged on these issues both within the agency and from outside, then we will fail to understand and take action on what is the most significant public health and economic challenge of our time.”