President Trump has directed all US federal agencies to evaluate the need for each of their current advisory committees and terminate at least one-third of them by the end of September, prompting alarm among science and environmental advocates. There are about 1000 such boards currently in operation within the US government, and more than 200 are designated as ‘scientific and technical’, according to the General Services Administration.

Trump’s 14 June executive order could lead to ‘the elimination of a range of federal government advisory committees’, warned the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s chief executive, Rush Holt. ‘For science advisory committees specifically, the question is whether the benefits to Americans in areas including public health and the environment outweigh the costs,’ added Rush, a former physicist and congressman. ‘Advisory committees help the government become better informed, and making smart decisions should not be seen as optional or dispensable.’

Benjamin Corb, spokesperson for American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, tweeted simply: ‘This is … not good.’ Christine Todd Whitman, who ran the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under former President George W Bush, agrees. She is worried that the new policy will supplant science-based regulations.

‘While they say, “Do a review of the current committees”, the emphasis is on a random number – if you don’t cut by a third you will be in trouble – and that tells you that it’s not just about making things more efficient,’ Whitman tells Chemistry World. ‘That is not how you do intelligent policy that will protect the American people and help protect our environment and health.’

The American Chemical Society is also concerned. ‘Federal advisory committees have proven to be a very valuable mechanism to bring added expertise and advice to bear on issues before federal agencies,’ says the organisation’s spokesperson Glenn Ruskin. ‘It is always good management practice to ensure effective, efficient and transparent federal activities using taxpayer dollars, however, the recent executive order seemingly sets arbitrary numbers,’ he adds. ‘Rather than a random cap on the number of federal committees, agency decisions should be needs-based coupled with criteria for elimination.’

Going for the jugular

This latest presidential directive follows a larger trend in the US. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently analysed data on 73 of the so-called ‘scientific and technical’ advisory committees at US agencies, and found that their total number of meetings fell 20% from 2016 to 2017, and membership shrank 14%. These figures compare with a 4% decrease in meetings and a 7% drop in membership during President Obama’s transition year, and 38% and 0.8% decreases, respectively, in President G W Bush’s transition year.

‘For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees,’ said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy. ‘Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice. It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.’

Science advisory boards have faced other pressures in recent years. Trump’s former head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, issued a policy in October 2017 that prohibited researchers whose work is funded by the agency from serving on several EPA advisory committees. The move was criticised as scientific censorship as well as an effort to pack these panels with representatives from regulated industries.

Pruitt also decided earlier that year not to renew the membership of half the scientists serving on the EPA’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors. The board is responsible for peer-reviewing the science underway in the agency.

‘This isn’t new with the Trump administration, it is just taking it to an extreme that we haven’t seen before,’ Whitman states. ‘Evidence-based science – I think we are losing,’ she adds, arguing that the current White House has dramatically tilted things in favour of industry. ‘Every business has a right to be heard when there is a regulation being considered that affects their business, but they shouldn’t be the dominant voice – at the end of the day, it should be the science.’