Science Policy & Funding News

Groups Oppose Cuts to Federal Advisory Committees

Dozens of groups call for President Donald Trump to rescind an executive order that they say would arbitrarily eliminate essential advice to inform government decision-making.

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Dozens of organizations—including scientific, environmental, and public health groups—are calling on President Donald Trump to rescind his 14 June 2019 executive order that limits the number of Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) advisory committees.

“By requiring elimination of one-third of existing advisory committees and capping the total number of committees at 350, the order would arbitrarily eliminate essential advice that informs government decisionmaking,” states a 4 October letter signed by 77 groups, including the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL), Natural Resources Defense Council, and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

FACA committees provide important outside expertise to federal agencies on a broad range of issues, including science, energy, medicine, and the arts. The executive order states that criteria for potential termination include whether the committees’ stated objectives have been accomplished and whether operation costs for committees are considered excessive in relation to their benefits to the federal government.

Committees Have Been a “Bargain for Taxpayers”

The convening of experts “to deliberate on pressing matters is a bargain for taxpayers,” the letter states. “The removal of advisory committees across the government without a compelling rationale is a threat to a vital independent source of information and deliberation.”

Currently, two committees already have been confirmed as being cut, according to Genna Reed, a lead science and policy analyst at the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. Those two are the Invasive Species Advisory Committee at the Department of the Interior and the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee at the Department of Commerce. Reed determined that those committees were cut by their inclusion on a 29 September 2017 executive order continuing their functions but not on a similar 27 September 2019 order. The 14 June executive order that requires the termination of at least a third of federal advisory committees set a 30 September deadline for federal agencies to comply with the order.

Reed thinks other cuts have been made and committee members have been or will be informed. She says she thinks the public will find out about further FACA cuts “in a piecemeal way.”

“The fact that the agencies haven’t put out a public list of advisory committees that they cut is telling. It shows that they understand that there is a public backlash and that these cuts that they are engaging in are inappropriate and unwarranted,” Reed said.

The executive order “is part of this administration’s track record with failing to listen to its own scientists and failing to listen to its external experts who have different opinions perhaps, or inconvenient information that would be disruptive to the administration’s agenda,” she said.

Jon White, president and CEO of COL, said that FACA committees are the best means to ensure that the brightest scientists in the world “are being used to make the best possible decisions by our government. If we don’t have them, then we are losing an incredibly valuable part of our [capability] to inform our future and help us to navigate effectively and safely and not run aground.”

White said he doesn’t accept the rationale that these committees should be cut because of their costs. “I don’t know what the reasoning is, but I don’t buy that,” he said.

He added, “I don’t know of any [committees] that I would offer up to actually cut. It’s a huge concern for the scientific community and, I think, for our nation as well.”

Congressional Concerns

Some members of Congress have raised concerns about the executive order. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, questioned the executive order in 12 July letters to a number of federal science agencies. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) introduced the Preserve Science in Policymaking Act of 2019 on 27 September. The bill would “prohibit the termination of advisory committees before the end of their charter unless authorized by law, and for other purposes.”

The elimination of FACA committees “is going to continue to be an area that Congress is interested in doing oversight on,” Reed, from UCS, said. “There really should be a concerted federal effort to look at how and why agencies are making decisions to cut these advisory committees and what kind of impact these cuts are going to have on the quality of government decisions.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Groups oppose cuts to federal advisory committees, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO135223. Published on 08 October 2019.
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