The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Phone: 202-332-9110

Govt. Science Panels Skewed Toward Industry, Says Report

CSPI Urges Legislation to Restore Balance


The National Coal Council issues reports with titles such as "Coal:
America's Energy Future" and "The Urgency of Sustainable Coal." And
while its web site loads, Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"
streams triumphantly over the image of an American bald eagle. Coal
boosterism from a K Street lobby shop? In fact, the National Coal
Council is an official government science panel charged with advising
the Secretary of Energy on the feasibility of clean coal technology.
Not surprisingly, the panel has at least 15 members with financial ties
to coal companies, whose fate depends on the technology's favorable

According to an investigation released today
by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, the
National Coal Council is similar to other unbalanced science panels
across the government that give industry inappropriate influence over
federal regulatory policy.

Government advisory committees that deliver policy
recommendations are supposed to be comprised of members that represent
a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives of regulated
industries, consumers, and community groups. Government advisory
committees that advise agencies on scientific issues are supposed to be
made up of scientists without financial ties to industry who can render
independent, objective advice. Both types of committee are plagued with
problems, according to CSPI.

One committee with a clear scientific mandate is the Wind
Turbines Guidelines Advisory Committee at the Department of Interior's
Fish and Wildlife Service. It exists in part to recommend "scientific
tools and procedures" for assessing the risk of wind turbines to
wildlife. Instead of being comprised of scientists without financial
interests in the panel's work, the committee is stacked with
stakeholder representatives from the energy industry.

Another example is the National Organic Standards Board at
the Department of Agriculture, which determines what foods and
substances can be called organic. Despite the scientific mandate of the
board, the committee is mostly populated with representatives from
stakeholder groups, including corporations. (A General Mills
representative was designated as representing "scientists" until
consumer groups complained.)

"Over the course of the Bush Administration, government
science panels have become increasingly influenced by industry," said
CSPI lead investigator Kristin Stade, who authored the report. "Though
existing law requires balance, scientists without ties to industry are
becoming endangered species on many of these important panels."

Perhaps in response to reports from the Government Accountability Office, which in 2004 and 2008 criticized agencies for naming industry representatives to science panels,
the Department of Energy improperly reclassified industry
representatives as special governmental employees (SGEs)-the
classification normally used for scientists on the panels. On the
Energy Department's Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, several members
with ties to the nuclear power industry (as well as the sole
representative from an environmental group) were improperly
reclassified as SGEs. Not surprisingly, the committee wound up
supporting a controversial industry-favored nuclear fuel reprocessing
program, according to the report.

Indeed, CSPI found a number of policy committees that
suffered from a lack of balance though they should have been comprised
of representatives from various stakeholder groups. A Sporting
Conservation Council, for instance, is dominated by representatives
from hunting and big game organizations. And at Agriculture, the Fruit
and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee and the Grain Inspection
Advisory Committee are almost exclusively composed of members
affiliated with those industries.

On science panels, agencies may grant waivers to panelists
with conflicts of interest if "the need for the individual's services
outweighs the potential for a conflict of interest," but CSPI found
waivers are often not issued. That was especially the case for Interior
and Energy department panels, where numerous conflicts of interest went
undocumented but apparently were informally waived.

To restore the integrity of the federal advisory committee
system, CSPI supports legislation that would correct many of the
chronic problems regarding balance, conflict of interest screening and
transparency. Similar legislation passed the House in 2008 but died in
the Senate. That legislation needs to be strengthened, reintroduced and
approved, the group says.

"The hundreds of federal agency advisory committees whose
deliberations affect the health and safety of the American people face
growing scrutiny by Congress, public interest organizations, and
members of the public," according to the report. "The new
administration should act immediately to address longstanding
deficiencies in the advisory committee system."

In addition to legislation, CSPI says an executive order
from incoming President Barack Obama could clarify and strengthen the
existing Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.