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White House executive orders impacting science

June 20, 2019
By: Ellen Marrison

Two recent executive orders issued by the White House have met with mixed reactions. While one order intended to ease the regulatory process for certain biotech products was met with favor by some in that industry, another order that could eliminate at least one third of the current federal advisory committees that was issued just days later, was roundly criticized.

In his June 11 Executive Order, the president directs federal agencies to streamline the agricultural biotechnology regulatory processes. The order gives the leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture 180 days to design a plan that will provide regulatory information and guidance in a coordinated response to inquiries from developers of agricultural biotechnology products.

A fact sheet issued by the White House says the order will “help eliminate delays, reduce developer costs, and provide greater certainty about the review process for farmers” as well as “help create an environment that fosters greater investment in these innovative crops.” The order states that any regulatory regime for products of agricultural biotechnology “should ensure public confidence in the oversight of such products and also promote future innovation and competitiveness.” To help ensure that, the order details that federal government will “base regulatory decisions on scientific and technical evidence,” among other measures.

While that order was considered by some groups, like the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), as a move in the right direction, another order issued by the president three days later did not meet the same support from some in the science community.

On June 14, the president issued an Executive Order on Evaluating and Improving the Utility of Federal Advisory Committees, calling for a review of current advisory committees that are authorized by law, but not required by statute, and that each agency terminate at least one-third of its current committees by Sept. 30 of this year. The order states that the government-wide combined total number of eligible committees shall not exceed 350, and if it does, that an agency may not establish a new advisory committee unless it obtains a waiver.

While the order states that committees whose objective have been accomplished, where the subject matter has become obsolete, or whose primary functions have been assumed by another entity should be terminated, the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs the operation of the committees, already makes such stipulations.

A story in The Scientist holds that the presidential order “may end up depriving its agencies of expertise needed for making decisions.” The Union of Concerned Scientists Research Director Gretchen Goldman issued a statement criticizing the order, saying it removes the possibility of making decisions based on robust science advice. According to Goldman’s statement, “It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.”

white house, science