At issue: industry influence over federal advisory committees

Science advisory committees provide counsel to numerous federal agencies on issues requiring nonpartisan scientific expertise. But guidelines designed to keep those committees free from conflicts of interest are overly narrow, loophole-ridden, and inconsistently applied, according to 21 public health advocates, agency watchdogs, and academic leaders. Critics, like the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), charge that the weak ethics rules can lead to excessive corporate representation on key committees—and skewed public policies.

The critics, who include two members of a controversial committee on childhood lead poisoning, today called on the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to establish clear and uniform government-wide guidelines to guard against conflicts of interest and excessive industry influence over federal advisory committees.

“It’s bad enough that the administration is bumping well-respected experts off key committees in favor of industry insiders,” said Virginia Ashby Sharpe, director of CSPI’s Integrity in Science project. “But sometimes those insiders’ ties to industry are concealed from the public or the media because of inadequate disclosure and reporting requirements. Sometimes Big Business likes to be heard—but not seen.”

In a letter sent today to OGE director Amy Comstock, the experts made recommendations designed to restore the independence, transparency, and public trust in the federal advisory-committee process. Those recommendations would:

  • Require committee members to disclose relevant financial and industry affiliations. Currently, many ostensibly objective academic scientists are not required to disclose the full extent of their ties to industry-funded trade associations, companies, or other groups.
  • Broaden the array of financial interests reported by potential committee members and disclosed to the public. Those interests should include research grants, awards, and consulting fees from industry; leadership in industry-backed groups; and expert-witness testimony, among other things.
  • Improve public access to information about advisory committee members through the online database provided for under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The new recommendations come in the wake of allegations that the Bush Administration has overly politicized the make-up of several key federal advisory committees by applying ideological litmus tests to potential nominees and by stacking those committees with representatives of industries that have a stake in the committees’ work.

State governments also use special committees to provide scientific advice, and state-level advisory committees too have fallen prey to excessive industry influence, according to CSPI. Recently, the California Senate heard testimony on allegations that Pacific Gas and Electric improperly influenced a blue-ribbon panel reviewing the so-called “Erin Brockovich” case. PG&E paid more than $300 million to plaintiffs who alleged the company polluted of drinking water with chromium 6.

“These recommendations made to OGE will also be extremely useful to states seeking to curtail manipulation of science panels,” says Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, which provided testimony at the hearing.