Science policy: advisory opinion

fivethirtyeight has the details on a horrifically short-sighted and foolish set of moves by the Trump administration:

“Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed at least nine scientists from an 18-person scientific advisory board dedicated to reviewing the agency’s research and ensuring that its methodology is sound. According to E&E News, several of the fired researchers had been assured just months earlier that their positions on the board would be renewed. A spokesman for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told The New York Times that the administration might fill some of the roles with representatives from industries that the agency regulates.

Scientific advisory boards are independent bodies made up of experts outside the government who (you guessed it!) offer advice based on their scientific expertise. The members are usually academic scientists, chosen from a diverse range of fields, though they can also include scientists employed by industry. There are 197 active advisory committees, spread over 20 federal agencies and organizations, that deal directly with scientific and technical programs. That count doesn’t include other kinds of science-related advisory boards, such as those tasked with selecting research grant proposals or ones focused on specific national policy issues.”  –538







“The Trump administration, however, seems to be viewing advisory boards with a skeptical eye. In addition to the EPA news, the Department of the Interior this week announced plans to review the way it manages its own advisory boards, both scientific and otherwise. Skepticism of advisory boards, particularly the EPA’s, is nothing new. Since at least 2007, critics have complained that the EPA’s advisory boards are riddled with conflicts of interest because many of the scientists who sit on them are also the recipients of EPA research grants. The House recently passed a bill requiring the EPA to replace academics with more industry representatives and banning anyone who has been on an advisory committee from applying for an EPA grant for five years.

Defenders of the advisory board system argue that such rules would discourage researchers most familiar with current research from applying for board membership. Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician and epidemiologist who has served on scientific advisory committees for both the EPA and FDA, said it would be particularly strange to apply the rules only to the EPA, when the same basic conflict exists at many agencies. He said there are other ways to address conflicts of interest; the National Academies, for example, has been working on policies for dealing with exactly this kind of thing for decades. Meanwhile, industry experts are likely to have their own biases. In 1998, for instance, the EPA was taken to task by the General Accountability Office for putting together a scientific advisory board that was so weighted to industry experts that it changed the outcome of a report on the cancer risks of a chemical used in the rubber industry, 1,3-butadiene. The report labeled the substance less dangerous than EPA researchers believed it to be; after the GAO spoke up, EPA decided to throw out that report altogether and classified the risk level of butadiene based on the assessment of its own scientists.”  –538

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