(CN) – Scientific advisory boards across the spectrum of federal government are worse off than at any time in the past 20 years, according to a study released Thursday by the Union for Concerned Scientists.
Many spots on various scientific advisory committees charged with advising government agencies remain unfilled, while some of their advice is watered down or distorted by the agencies and in some cases the committees are eliminated altogether.
“Federal agencies are supposed to consider the evidence when they’re making policy decisions that impact all of us,” said Genna Reed, lead author of the report. “If we don’t have access to the best available science, we can’t trust these agencies to protect and inform the public.”
Researchers looked at more than 72 committees formed to provide advice to 24 agencies across the federal government, combining interviews with participants with the analysis of membership rosters, attendance and other factors.
Scientific advisory committees met less last year than at any point during the past 20 years – when the government kept track – and two-thirds of those committees are meeting less than their charter requires.
Membership in scientific panels has decreased by 14 percent from 2016, more than twice the rate during President Barack Obama’s transitional year. By contrast, the decline was only 1 percent during President George W. Bush’s first year, the study says.
Particular to the Energy and Commerce Departments and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the membership of the two scientific advisory panels is at an all-time ebb since tracking began in 1997.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have publicly questioned the scientific consensus behind climate change and refused to renew the terms of sitting committee members, instead stocking committee memberships with scientists friendly to industry.
“It’s clear that the administration is willfully neglecting, even undermining, independent scientific advice,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I’ve worked as a federal scientist and served on science advisory committees, and I can tell you that agencies just can’t make good decisions in the public interest if they can’t or won’t listen to the facts.”
The study comes two days after The Washington Post reported three-fourths of a committee convened to advise the National Park Service resigned after expressing concerns the Trump administration would not listen to them.
“I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success,” wrote Carolyn Hessler Radelet, an advisory board member, in her resignation letter. “However, from all the events of the past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection and advancement of our national parks has been set aside.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the National Park system, was also singled out in the study as having a hostile attitude toward scientific advice.
Zinke eliminated the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science and also made the decision to reduce the size of two national monuments while Interior Department advisory committees were still being formed, the study said.
“The U.S. leads the world in science,” said Reed. “The experts and the institutions we have here are an incredibly valuable resource – a resource the administration is now squandering.”