President Donald Trump signed a decree last Friday to reduce by one third the number of government advisory committees across federal agencies. This decision, which according to the White House, is long overdue and is necessary to ensure proper management of taxpayer money.
Critics, however, said it was the Trump administration's latest effort to undermine science-based, evidence-based decision-making.
"This is another example of how the Trump administration is disconnected from the needs of the American people and how to protect them from harm," said Mustafa Ali, who resigned in 2017 as Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice. to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Advisory Committee experts, which were formalized in 1972 by the Federal Advisory Committees Act (FACA), provide the executive branch with information on issues such as the disposal of high-level nuclear waste. depletion of atmospheric ozone, AIDS, drug addiction and school improvement. and housing.
For the past two years, the administration has "reduced and restricted the role of federal science advisory committees," said Gretchen Goldman, director of research at the Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists in a statement. "Now they are eliminating the possibility of making decisions based on solid scientific advice.It's no longer death by a thousand cuts." It's a stab at the jugular. "
Judd Deere, deputy press secretary for the White House, told NBC News by email that these cuts were long overdue.
"No government has reviewed FACA committees since 1993, and the President believes that it is time to re-examine and eliminate those that are irrelevant and that provide valuable services for that we can handle taxpayers' money well, Deere wrote.
The whole-of-government review referred to is the last time that such a reduction has been made.
President Bill Clinton signed an order in February 1993 that ended "at least a third of the advisory committees" established under the Federal Advisory Committees Act and that were not required by law.
The number of scientific advisory committees has increased slightly under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but scientists are concerned that the Trump government continues to distance the federal government from the factual decision-making that these committees are supposed to defend. .
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In a study conducted last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that between 2016 and 2017, the number of scientific advisory committees in all agencies had decreased by 20% and their number of members, 14%.
Goldman said the orderly cut of Trump would greatly exacerbate this trend.
"They are escalating by saying that they are going to get rid of one third of them arbitrarily," Goldman said over the phone. "It's really foolish because there is no reason to do it. It is cheap for the government because it does not pay people for their time or expertise, but simply to pay for their travel expenses. "
A review of Congressional research on federal advisory committees conducted in October 2016 revealed that approximately 1,000 committees were organized under the Federal Advisory Committees Act between 2011 and 2015. Their membership varied from 69,750 to 72,220, and the budget of all committees remained unchanged. or less than $ 416.4 million.
More than half of this budget is allocated to federal support staff on committees, says the report.
Stan Meiburg, who worked for 39 years at the Environmental Protection Agency before retiring in 2017, worked with such committees within Republican and Democratic administrations, while he was an employee from the federal government.
The advisory board members are largely unpaid and often find creative ways for the federal government to save money, said Meiburg, a former EPA deputy regional administrator and current member of the protection network. 39; environment.
"It's very imprudent," he said about the executive order. "When you think of ways to spend money that works for taxpayers, these committees have low margins and huge returns."
Unlike the Clinton administration's decree, Trump's decree also opens the door to closing the committees created by the Congress's statute. The order requires the agencies to create a "detailed plan" to ensure the durability of the commissions if they are "required by law" and to write "where appropriate, the recommended legislation to be submitted to Congress" for groups to modify or dissolve.
This could trigger a conflict between the White House and the Democrats, with Congress using FACA advisory committees to strengthen executive control.
"The committees reflect the interest shown by Congress in ensuring that a large number of viewpoints influence public policy," Meiburg said. "This interest will always be there, and I think you'll see a lot of resistance from the Congress."
However, the decree specifically exempts certain committees, particularly those that provide advice on the safety of consumer products.
Required reductions do not apply to advisory groups "whose primary purpose is to provide scientific expertise to organizations that make decisions related to the safety or efficacy of products intended for commercialization. US consumers "or groups" whose approval is required to fund extramural research contract, grant or cooperation agreement, "says the order.
The lawyers said the exemptions made it clear that Trump's order was not aimed at cutting costs or helping US citizens, but at helping businesses.
"This shows that they do not specifically want to cut committees that deal with or affect the private sector," said Goldman. "Those who stay then are places where science could be embarrassing."