Union of Concerned Scientists

Improving Transparency and Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest for Science Advisory Committees

Members of the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, in a December 2010 photo. USDA photo

On Wednesday this week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will hold a mark-up hearing in the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2019 introduced by Sen. Portman (R-OH). And before you stop reading, yes this is a science issue. The proposed amendments are intended to improve the transparency of the federal advisory committee process, including science advisory committees of scientists from outside government, and to disclose and reduce the impacts of conflicts of interest on those committees.

My colleagues and I have written extensively about recent problems with science advisory committees: Many aren’t meeting, some are rife with conflicts and some really have lost the capacity to provide independent advice for agencies across the government. That’s a serious problem for science-based policymaking. Science advice plays a crucial role in helping ensure our government makes science-based decisions on everything from air pollution standards to new drug approvals to worker safety protections.

What’s new

The proposed amendments require agencies to open nominations for committee positions, select and publicize from those nominations, and clearly distinguish independent scientists from those representing a particular interest group. They also require disclosure of conflicts of interest to the agency and the public and greater transparency of the meetings themselves. Also, political party affiliation cannot be used as a criterion for selection for a committee. This would be a useful requirement, since such political litmus tests have been used to distort and stack advisory committees under previous administrations.

When it comes to addressing conflicts of interest in government science advice, disclosure and transparency are a good thing but require effort. Under the bill, scientists serving on committees would need to file conflict of interest statements and meet the government ethics rules. I have had to do so for numerous committees, and I can’t say it is enjoyable to do the paperwork. But, if you believe the committee’s work is important, you sigh and fill it out. And then realize whining about it was more work than just doing it.

And yes, agencies would have to put in the effort to make more information public, but this kind of transparency would bring agencies more in line with the spirit of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. And in the overall work of an agency, this is not that big a burden.

But there is opposition, it seems particularly from the biomedical community. The NIH is already exempt for the purposes of grant proposal reviews, but for other advisory committees, disclosing conflicts of interest is viewed as an overwhelming hurdle that will discourage participation on panels. I just don’t see it.

Starting to fix what’s broken

The Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments are an attempt to fix an advisory process that is, in this Administration, too often captured by regulated industry. Conflicts of interest are the core of that problem, and transparency is one way to push back. Are the amendments perfect? No. There are still issues of diversifying panels, clarifying roles of committee members with conflicts of interest, adequately recognizing participation, and better institutional support and encouragement for panelists, as well as being transparent in the least burdensome way. You can see our ideas on improving advisory committees here.

But these amendments go in the right direction. We, as scientists, need to realize the need to continue to build and maintain public trust in our work, and ultimately decisions based on science. Spending a little time on disclosure will not go amiss.

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