Nov 21 2014

How to Choose Science Advisers

I recently discussed the decision of the EU president to eliminate the post of the EUC science adviser. It seems that a major factor in eliminating the position was the unpopular pro-GMO views of the person holding the post, Professor Anne Glover.

Now the US Congress has just passed a bill that would change the way appointments are made to the science advisory panel of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Two aspects of the bill are receiving critical attention, however, reading the text of the bill itself makes it unclear to me what the net effect would be.

The first is a provision allowing onto the advisory panel experts with ties to the industry that is being regulated. The White House claims that this provision would, “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. said to the bill’s sponsor, “I get it, you don’t like science, and you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.”

Here is the relevant text of the bill:

Persons with substantial and relevant expertise are not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or representation of entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities, so long as that interest is fully disclosed to the Administrator and the public and appointment to the Board complies with section 208 of title 18, United States Code;

This one is trickier than it may at first seem. On the one hand, it is appropriate to exclude from the advisory committee an employee of a company that the agency regulates. The company and their industry can make their case to the EPA in other ways. The advisory committee, however, should provide objective and untainted advice to the EPA.

However, it is common for even academic experts to advise industry as well. I have seen trivial connections to industry used as a means of dismissing or discrediting relevant experts. We don’t want to scare academics away from providing useful advice to industry because doing so would forever taint their credentials or ability to serve on non-industry advisory panels.

It all depends on how such rules are enforced. I don’t like the wording of this bill, because it seems to have no limits on the degree of “affiliation or representation” of industry. I would feel better if that part were spelled out in more detail, rather than giving carte blanche. For example, if it said that minor affiliations were acceptable, but substantial connections would remain an exclusionary criterion, that would be more appropriate.

As always, the actual intent of political bills such as this are concealed behind a wall of spin and justification. The Republicans say that currently experts working for environmental groups are not excluded, but industry experts are, and this is an unfair asymmetry. That’s a dubious point, as environmental groups are generally not being regulated by the EPA, but industry is. However, critics suspect the real purpose of the bill is to hamper the EPA as much as possible in order to free industry from its regulations.

In any case, there probably is a reasonable compromise in there somewhere, but we may never see it.

I do think this is similar to the EU chief science adviser issue. Those advocating the elimination of the position are hiding behind the idea that the structure of the position itself was unfair, giving too much power to one person. This sounds like spin to me. I doubt Greenpeace would have weighed in on this issue if Professor Glover were not openly pro-GMO. It’s also not a legitimate point in itself, in my opinion. Many governments and agencies have chief science advisers, and the arrangement works fine. It’s similar to the Surgeon General of the US and many other positions.

Also, by all accounts Glover was very open, involving many relevant experts in the process, and was not just providing her personal advice. The entire charge seems completely bogus.

The second aspect of the bill is that researchers are barred from participating on the panel when the topic relates to their own research.

Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work;

I guess the notion is that researchers will not be objective regarding their own research. There is some truth in this, but this does not seem like enough of a concern to bar them from discussing the research. The most problematic word in the text is “indirectly” – that would seem to exclude the entire field of research. The wording of this section would seem to bar the most relevant experts from participating in the area of their actual expertise.

In fairness, the bill also says:

in the case of a Board advisory activity on a particular matter involving a specific party, no Board member having an interest in the specific party shall participate in that activity;

So arguably an adviser with ties to a company could not participate in a matter involving that company.  Still, the bill would seem to argue that having significant financial ties to a particular company that is regulated by the EPA is less of a conflict of interest than discussing a scientific area that indirectly relates to one’s own research. It is difficult to interpret the bill in any way other than a bold attempt to significantly tip the balance in favor of companies that would be regulated by the EPA.


In a way it may be a good thing that the topic of science advisory panels and chief science advisers is being discussed, and the transparent attempt by politicians to manipulate the process is being exposed. Let’s bring it all out into the light. Perhaps we may even get to a generally accepted standard for scientific advice to governments and agencies.

First, it should be recognized that any government or public agency making decisions that can be and should be informed by science should have a formal structure of scientific advice from the most relevant and independent experts.

Absolute transparency should be the norm, including disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest.

Minor or trivial potential conflicts should not be used to exclude relevant experts, but major or significant conflicts should.

Advisory panels should contain a variety of experts and opinions, but should not feel obliged to pander to special interest groups or agenda-driven and unscientific opinions.

It is a tricky thing to merge politics and science because they play by such different rules. Politics is about ideology and compromise. Science is about neither – it is about logic and evidence. You don’t have to compromise between science and pseudoscience, and all ideologies do not need to be represented. You just need the best experts who are able to give objective and independent analysis of the facts.

Politicians, however, are uncomfortable with objective facts and solid science. They would rather pick and manipulate the facts to support their ideology, rather than conform their ideology to the scientific consensus. The public, however, is best served with the latter, and so we may need to demand that our politicians, at the very least, have proper scientific advice.


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