In a move touted as “improving the utility of federal advisory committees,” President Trump signed Executive Order 13875 in June, requiring all federal agencies to reduce the number of their advisory committees by no less than one-third. By doing so he continued to diminish the role of science in government.
Advisory committees help protect Americans from health threats like Covid-19, cancer, and heart disease, and have become an essential component of our national security. Many federal advisory committees focus on science, medicine, health, and technology, and range from advising on pesticides and public safety to preventing breast cancer and managing the demands on the health care workforce. Some of the scientific advisory committees eliminated by the executive order were charged with giving advice to the directors of major federal health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute.
The incoming Biden administration needs to reinstate these advisory boards so the federal government has access to a broad network of clear-thinking, independent public health advisers who will safeguard the nation in a rapidly changing world.
One of the advisory committees that was eliminated was the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Center for Environmental Health, which is part of the CDC.
Having served as the chair of this board for four years, I can attest to the critical issues on which we advised the center and the CDC. From the toxic effects of lead in drinking water to heat-related illnesses and deaths caused by climate change, rigorous inspection of cruise ships to prevent foodborne disease outbreaks, and toxic chemicals at hazardous waste sites, the board guided the CDC in dealing with a host of issues that threaten the health of millions of Americans.
CDC’s scientific advisory committees have been functioning for nearly 60 years, ever since they were established by law in 1962. They are composed of the nation’s leading experts. Many are scientists working in universities and teaching hospitals where they are generating new knowledge through research and transmitting it to the next generation through teaching and mentoring. Others work in industry and at state and local health agencies. The deep, independent knowledge of the advisers ensures that the CDC gets authoritative information based on evidence — not on personal ideologies or vested interests.
A critical function of independent public health advisers is to provide federal agencies with early warnings of emerging threats. For decades before the arrival of Covid-19, independent scientists, including many who had served on federal scientific advisory committees, had been studying viral infections in animal species in the far corners of the world. These physicians and scientists had repeatedly warned of the dangers that these zoonotic infections would pose to human health if they “jumped” from animals to humans.
The CDC and other federal agencies should have had continuous access to this intelligence. But after Sept. 30, 2019, when the Board of Scientific Counselors of the National Center for Environmental Health ceased to exist — a time when the nation most needed this kind of critical information — access to it was halted. We have seen the tragic consequences of this self-inflicted ignorance.
As a scientist and mother, I envision a future for my children in which the country is prepared for the next public health emergency, focused on preventing health threats rather than being crippled by them. Going forward, it is essential that CDC and other federal health agencies have regular access to the cutting-edge knowledge that independent scientific advisory panels can provide.
Our nation’s health hinges on good science. Our national security cannot afford another Covid-19. We must turn away from darkness and once again embrace scientific truths. Our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.
Melissa J. Perry is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.