WASHINGTON—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 review.
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.For more information, contact: Center for Science in the Public Interest