Ensuring the Integrity of the Scientific Advisory System

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Publication date: 
20 May 2004

Based on allegations that officials in the Bush Administration have, for political and ideological reasons, manipulated scientific advisory committees, reports, and information, several Democratic Members of Congress asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to review the federal government's policies for staffing scientific advisory committees. At a May 19 briefing, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Minority Member of the House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research, and Science Committee member Brian Baird (D-WA) released the GAO's report, which makes a series of recommendations to better ensure the independence and balance of scientific advisory committees and the transparency of the committee appointment process. Johnson and Baird have also sent a letter to President Bush, sharing the GAO's findings and asking the President to "fully embrace those findings." Their May 19 letter can be found at www.house.gov/science_democrats/member/johnson_baird_letter.pdf. It is of note that, in April, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger issued a rebuttal of many of the allegations referred to above.

"The American public deserves to see its government receive the best advice available," Johnson declared at the briefing. "Every area of life is touched upon by the work of these advisory panels - the environment, our food supply, public health and safety, education, research programs in a wide array of fields - so this is more than just an academic debate," she said. The U.S.'s national security, economic future and health, Baird said, depend on "integrity" within the scientific advisory system, and "political respect" for that system. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) added that "there must not be confusion" between the gathering and analysis of scientific information and the political work of balancing different interests.

During President Bush's tenure, a number of scientists have charged that Administration officials took actions to alter the membership of scientific advisory bodies, censor or suppress scientific information, and selectively consider data, to an extent not seen in previous administrations, to concur with ideological, political, or religious views. These allegations have led to several reports by critics of the Administration that attempt to document such abuses. One such report was issued by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Minority Member of the House Government Reform Committee (see www.house.gov/reform/min/politicsandscience/report.htm). Another was prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and accompanied by a February 18 statement signed by over 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 19 National Medal of Science winners. The UCS report alleges a "pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings," an "effort to manipulate the government's scientific advisory system," and censorship of government scientists. The accompanying statement acknowledges that "other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices," but it alleges that those practices were not as systematic "nor on so wide a front" as those of the current Administration. The UCS report and related statement can be viewed at www.ucsusa.org/global_environment/rsi/index.cfm.

On April 2, Marburger issued a rebuttal of the UCS's charges. His response, which is available at www.ostp.gov/html/ucs.html, states in part that many of the "suppressed" items of information were removed from public access for revision and were, or will be, subsequently re-posted with updated scientific information, and that changes in committee membership and the elimination of certain advisory panels were part of the regular advisory committee process and not intentional manipulation. Subsequently, the UCS issued a reply to Marburger, which can be found on the UCS web site at www.ucsusa.org/global_environment/rsi/page.cfm?pageID=1393.

(It is worth noting that, according to GAO, the law allows for individuals to be selected for a scientific advisory committee to represent certain interest groups or stakeholders, in addition to members selected for their expertise in relevant areas, and requires that such bodies be "fairly balanced" across points of view.)

The GAO report does not address any of the allegations nor their validity, but instead reviews the federal processes and procedures for appointing advisory committee members, and makes suggestions to improve those processes for consistency, transparency, and to better ensure independent and balanced committee membership. Robin Nazzaro, GAO Director for Natural Resources and Environment, stated at Wednesday's briefing that, "independent of the facts and issues, the perception alone [that committees are not independent and balanced] is problematic," and may "jeopardize the value of the committees' work and call into question the integrity of the advisory system itself."

GAO recommends that the Office of Government Ethics give federal agencies additional guidance to clarify the difference between those members designated as "special government employees," who are invited to serve on advisory committees for their expertise and are subject to conflict of interest regulations, and those designated as "representatives," who are invited to serve as the voice of an interest group or community of stakeholders, and are expected to have "a particular and known bias." The report further recommends that the General Services Administration provide guidance on what types of information should be collected in a systematic, consistent way on potential advisory panel members in order to ensure that, as required by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, committees are - and are perceived to be - "fairly balanced in terms of points of view presented and the functions to be performed by the advisory committee." (However, the report does not address how wide a range of views should be represented in order for a panel to be considered balanced.) Additionally, the report identifies several "promising practices" for enhancing independence, balance, and transparency: seeking committee nominations from the public; using a clearly defined process to review information on nominees' viewpoints and possible conflicts of interest; and developing a structured prescreening interview to ensure appropriate questioning of nominees.

The GAO report, "Federal Advisory Committees: Additional Guidance Could Help Agencies Better Ensure Independence and Balance," can be found at www.gao.gov/new.items/d04328.pdf.

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