Over the last few years, we've seen some bitter political arguments over the role of US Government scientists, political appointees, and the manipulation of technical reports. I'm not going to wade into that fight here, except for one point: occasionally we hear the argument that government scientists are employees of the executive branch, and that they are therefore legitimately subject to the efforts of the President and his appointees to get everybody on board with the President's agenda.
For many positions in the federal government, that argument is correct. If you work for the executive branch, ultimately the President is your boss. But in many cases, especially ones that concern some government scientists, there is a limit to what the President and his political appointees can do, because the role of those scientists has been established by law. Congress has sensibly written several laws to ensure that the government can get sound, unbiased technical advice, free from political manipulation.
One of these laws is the Federal Advisory Committee Act
, enacted in 1972, which is aimed at regulating committees that give the government technical advice. The motivation for the act was that
The Congress finds that there are numerous committees, boards, commissions, councils, and similar groups which have been established to advise officers and agencies in the executive branch of the Federal Government and that they are frequently a useful and beneficial means of furnishing expert advice, ideas, and diverse opinions to the Federal Government...[but] standards and uniform procedures should govern the establishment, operation, administration, and duration of advisory committees...[and] the Congress and the public should be kept informed with respect to the number, purpose, membership, activities, and cost of advisory committees...
Now in Congress is an effort to update this act (enter HR 5687 in the search box)
. The bill includes requirements that:
"All appointments to advisory committees shall be made without regard to political affiliation or political activity, unless required by Federal statute."
"The head of each agency shall ensure that no individual appointed to serve on an advisory committee that reports to the agency has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions to be performed by the advisory committee, unless the head of the agency determines that the need for the individual's services outweighs the potential impacts of the conflict of interest."
"Any communication between an interagency advisory committee established by the President or the Vice President or any member or staff acting on behalf of such an interagency advisory committee, and any person who is not an officer or employee of the Federal Government,shall be made available for public inspection and copying. Any portion of a communication that involves a matter described in section 552(b) of title 5, United States Code, or that is subject to a valid constitutionally based privilege against such disclosure, may be withheld from public disclosure."
Similar provisions exist for some government agencies, and they should exist for all.
This is good - advisory boards should make independent technical judgments, based on evidence. The political appointees can then act or not act, or spin things as they see fit, but if we can't get independent technical advice without the meddling of political appointees, then reality will continue to beat the snot out of us, over and over.