Science Policy & Funding News

White House Order Shutters Some Key Advisory Committees

Committees that had focused on environmental issues, marine protected areas, and the nation’s electric grid are among those terminated.

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A White House executive order issued this summer to eliminate one third of the federal government’s approximately 1,000 expert advisory committees already has resulted in the loss of several important panels that advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies on environmental and Earth science issues. More committee terminations could be forthcoming as word trickles out from federal agencies about the cuts.

Experts who until recently served on the shuttered committees expressed dismay about the cuts that resulted from the 14 June 2019 executive order. Some experts said they suspect that the political and environmental leanings of the Trump administration were at least partly to blame for disbanding some committees.

At EPA, two Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) committees have been terminated: the Environmental Laboratory Advisory Board and the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT). At the Department of Commerce, the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Federal Advisory Committee and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Smart Grid Advisory Committee are history.

Gone, too, is the Advisory Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which advised the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department of the Interior’s Invasive Species Advisory Committee also bit the dust, according to Genna Reed, a lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Some agencies have been spared the loss of their FACA committees. National Science Foundation spokesman Robert Margetta said that on the basis of the advice of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), NSF will not need to eliminate any FACA committees under the executive order. The Marine Mammal Commission, which has one FACA committee, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has two, also avoided any cuts.

NASA spokesman Sean Potter said that agency currently is working closely with OMB and the General Services Administration on the implementation of the executive order. “As this process is ongoing, we are unable to provide specific detail at this time,” Potter said.

Neither the Department of the Interior nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture responded to multiple requests for information about the fate of other FACA committees serving those agencies. Under the executive order, by 30 September the director of OMB was to have presented recommendations to President Donald Trump about terminating committees.

A “Disregard for Independent Information”

“These cuts are part of this administration’s clear disregard for independent information, especially when it is a hurdle to its deregulatory agenda,” said Reed. She added that there has been “very little justification” as to why committees that have been providing important guidance to the government have been cut.

The result of the executive order “is a dumbing down of our government at a time when we are seeing this administration listening even less to its own scientist staff, and now it is cutting out its expert advisers,” Reed noted. “There is very little interest in having policies that are based on anything other than political whim.”

She called for continued congressional oversight to find out how these committee cuts have been made. “It’s really important to have all that information out on the record so that members of the public can see exactly why these committees are being disbanded,” she said.

Deep-Sixing the Marine Protected Areas Panel

For Alex Brylske, who served on the MPA Federal Advisory Committee, there is no question as to why it was disbanded. The termination decision was “clearly political,” said Brylske, principal and founder of Ocean Education International, based in Cudjoe Key, Fla.

“Given the [committee’s] history of material contribution to the field of marine spatial planning, we were very much in the vanguard of balanced citizen participation in a sometimes highly contentious issue,” Brylske said. The committee’s termination “means the movement to advance a major marine resource management tool, MPA, has been needlessly slowed. As someone who has devoted his life to marine conservation, it leaves me both angry and disappointed.”

Other committee members also expressed frustration that the committee work has now ground to a halt. William McClintock, a project scientist at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the committee’s disbandment “was not a fair decision” and that the public deserves to be served by experts who can help them participate in the design, monitoring, and enforcement of marine protected areas. Regarding the termination, he said, “I was saddened, angered, and, ultimately, not surprised given the Trump administration’s hostility toward natural resource protection and effective management.”

Lynn McClure, senior regional director for the Midwest for the National Parks and Conservation Association, said the MPA committee, which included commercial interests, conservationists, and other stakeholders, produced well-balanced recommendations to the administration. “It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to cut that short,” she said.

Stakeholders in the Smart Grid

Paul Centolella, an expert in energy economics, law, and regulation who served as chair of the Smart Grid Advisory Committee, called its disbandment “unfortunate.”

“We are at a critical juncture in the evolution of the power grid,” said Centolella, the president of Paul Centolella & Associates in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He said the nonpartisan technical committee brought together a group of experts who were broadly representative of the stakeholders involved in the operation and planning for the future of the power grid.

James Fine, a member of the committee, said that “it was a terrible idea” to end it. Fine, director of energy research and senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the committee had provided NIST with important advice not only about what to work on and the scope of standards but how to communicate that information and get critical feedback. The committee just in June had presented NIST with a report about significant and ongoing public benefits of the agency’s Smart Grid Program.

Shannon Dosemagen, chair of EPA’s NACEPT committee until its termination, said that committee also was doing important work. Its most recent charge had been to develop recommendations to help the EPA with how to best incorporate a product durability rating system for items ranging from electronics to tires to help protect the environment and the health of Alaskans. The committee also had focused on community and citizen science.

“By EPA dissolving the council, it has gotten rid of 20–30 experts in the field of environmental policy and technology who could really have helped shape the future vision for how EPA thinks about technology innovation,” said Dosemagen, president and executive director of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science in New Orleans. She added, “It is my opinion that a council focused on amplifying the public voice may not be well received during this current administration.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), White House order shutters some key advisory committees, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136433. Published on 12 November 2019.
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