June 27, 2019
On June 14, the President released an Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees. The order has been met with a combination of confusion and concern from the scientific community.
The proposal to evaluate the usefulness of current advisory committees is a reasonable one. However, the Executive Order states specific numbers and cuts, and provides no justification. Namely, agencies are ordered to ‘terminate at least one-third’ of current committees, and to limit the government-wide combined total number of eligible committees to 350. This 350 number will also limit the establishment of new advisory committees, absent a waiver. According to the U.S. General Services Administration website, there are approximately 1,000 federal advisory committees at any given time. It is difficult to conceive of a rationale for a percent cut across agencies.
Several types of committees are exempted from the count including those created by statute; merit review panels established to fund an extramural research procurement contract, grant, or cooperative agreement such as those at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation; and those making recommendations related to the safety or efficacy of products to be marketed to American consumers.
Agencies are required to provide initial reports on their committees by August 1, 2019 and to terminate the target committees by September 30, 2019. This is an incredibly tight deadline. As agencies work to comply with the order, they are considering waivers.
Another source of confusion is the clause allowing for agencies to count towards the downsizing requirement, committees terminated since January 20, 2017. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the current administration has a history of stalling and changing the composition of technical advisory committees.