Reflections on Science Advice

Valerie M. Thomas

Being a science advisor is often viewed as prestigious, even glamorous. It is an honor to serve as an advisor to policy-makers, decision-makers, and the public. At the highest levels, science advisory roles are positions of leadership, with recognition of scientific achievement and discernment. Science advisors, particularly at the high levels, may meet and work with state and national leaders, their advice and comments may be reported in news media, and they may contribute to policy development. Science advisors can be influential; they have been called the fifth branch of government (Jasanoff 1998).

In fact, being a science advisor may not be glamorous at all. Yet it is an important service. In my reflections here on science advice, I will emphasize two points. The first is that there are many science advisory opportunities, and interested scientists and engineers can find opportunities to participate. Modest mid-level advisory committees and positions may not be glamorous, but scientists and engineers in these roles can provide valuable service, strengthening the scientific and technical basis of policy and regulation. Mid-level science advisory activities can also provide policy-makers and the public with direct contact with scientists and engineers, creating direct, often open-meeting examples of how scientists work and the contributions of scientists and engineers to society. Serving in these roles can be time consuming, but can be deeply satisfying.

The second point is that being a science advisor is a position of responsibility; there is potential for errors of commission and omission. Many of the issues that science advisors address are, in the big picture, technical or minor. But every once in a while there are big, difficult, controversial issues. Identifying these problems quickly and addressing them appropriately is a substantial challenge, key not only to the successful resolution of the technical issue at hand, but also to the public trust in scientists and engineers. Science advice goes far beyond explaining known science and engineering to decision-makers and the public; science advisors have their greatest potential to be influential at precisely those points at which the science and the policy decisions are controversial, uncertain, or complex.

I have had a number of opportunities to serve in advisory roles, at a modest level. After completing my PhD in high energy physics at Cornell University, I changed my research emphasis to nuclear arms control, and I was fortunate to receive a post-doctoral position in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Later I moved to Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, where I continued to work on nuclear arms control, and over time took up environmental and energy topics. My current position is at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I hold a joint appointment in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and in the School of Public Policy. This background in physics and broad policy-related research experience opened up opportunities to serve on the Science Advisory Board of the US Environmental Protection Agency, and also as a Congressional Science Fellow in the US Congress.

Availability of advisory opportunities
As mentioned above, after I finished my PhD thesis, I decided to transition to policy-related research. I thought it would be fairly easy: the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) offered a number of post-doctoral policy fellowships, as did the American Physical Society (APS), the American Institute of Physics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My policy experience consisted of having read quite a bit about it and having helped to organize university seminars and symposia on the topic; with so many openings for scientists I thought I was a shoo-in.

The transition was harder than I had expected. The responses to my applications for congressional and OTA fellowships were uniformly something like this: “Thank you for your interest. We received many excellent applications and we regret that we will not be offering you a position.”

Although my applications for congressional fellowships were not successful, post-doctoral science policy positions at universities were also available. I was delighted to be offered a post-doctoral position in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. This was a leading group from whom I learned a great deal; this position provided the start for career at the interface of science, technology, and policy.

Years later I again applied for a congressional science fellowship and was fortunate to be offered the APS Congressional Science Fellowship for 2004-05. I had an excellent experience working in the legislative office of Representative Rush Holt, one of the few scientists in the U.S. Congress. During that year I worked on science and technology topics, including the Energy Policy Act of 2005, technology assessment for the U.S. Congress, and federal support for research and development.

Since then I have occasionally served on the APS congressional fellow selection committee. Interviewing the candidates has driven home to me how competitive these fellowships are. The scientists applying for congressional fellowships, while often having only recently finished their PhDs, have strong research records and outstanding letters of recommendation. They are articulate, thoughtful and mature. In retrospect, it is no wonder that it took me some years, and more than one try, to be selected as a congressional science fellow.

I offer my experience to underscore that there are many opportunities to be involved in policy and science advice, and that nevertheless the process may not be completely easy or quick. All doors do not open at once; rejection is likely and probably healthy. Learn more and keep trying. Develop expertise, communicate, and think beyond committees.

Communicate. In addition to publishing papers, speaking at scientific and technical conferences and organizing sessions, consider reaching beyond the boundaries of your discipline. Write, at least occasionally, for an audience beyond your research peers. Also, consider striking up a conversation with people in government whose work is similar to yours. This could be as simple as an email or phone call.

Think Beyond Committees. Do not be dazzled by the prospect of serving on a government committee. Committee work is often boring, and generally involves reviewing or synthesizing other people’s research. Recognize that your own original research and peer-reviewed publications can be influential, and may be of greater value to society than any committee service. Find your way to contribute and serve.

Responsibilities and challenges of advisory positions
The most challenging of my experiences in science advice was my service on the US EPA Science Advisory Board’s (SAB’s) review of the dioxin reassessment in 2000-2001 (SAB 2001). The assessment of the risks of dioxin has been and remains controversial; SAB had previously provided reports on dioxin in 1987, 1992, and 1995. When I was invited to serve on the 2000 dioxin reassessment review committee, I had already been participating in SAB reviews for several years. I was familiar with the procedures of the SAB.

This assignment turned out to be different. As always, SAB advisory committee meetings are open to the public. Generally only a couple of people show up. This time, the committee met in a large hotel room, and there was a full audience. As the committee began its discussions, I noticed that when some members of the committee spoke, members of the audience raised signs. I wondered what was going on: some committee members seemed to have large numbers of supporters in the audience, others just a few. Finally I realized what was going on: an environmental advocacy organization, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, had researched the sources of funding of each of the committee members; for each company linked to dioxin emissions, they made a sign. So for each committee member who had received funding from a dioxin-producing company, a sign with the name of that company would go up each time he spoke. (I had no external funding for my dioxin work, and so was not a target.) It was a clever and theatrical protest, underscoring the environmental group’s claim that some committee members had conflicts of interest.

After the face-to-face meeting there was a period of several weeks while we wrote up our review document, through numerous emails and drafting and committee reviews. During that time, I was invited by an industry-funded organization to speak at a small conference on dioxin; due to the short preparation time, they said, they offered me a sizable honorarium. I must admit that I considered saying yes. But after reflection, it seemed that there was no other real interpretation than I would be paid by dioxin interests in the middle of a potentially influential dioxin review. I declined the invitation.

A week or so later I discussed this with the SAB staff director; he said not only was it mandatory that I refuse the invitation, but also that industry groups should not have been issuing such an invitation. I believe a reprimand or warning was issued to one or more stakeholder groups. So, another lesson learned: have an open and active line of communication with the staff supporting the advisory committee; they can be helpful, and they need to know what is going on. And, of course, don’t take money from stakeholders.

The most challenging part of this episode, however, was not the theatrical environmental protests or the monetary offers from industry, but the work of constructing the review itself. There were scientists on the ad hoc review committee who had strong views, wrote copiously, and were able to devote a great deal of time to the review process. Scientists who serve on committees of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board are federal employees — called special government employees or SGEs — during their hours of work, and they are paid for these hours. Nevertheless, as an employee of Princeton University at the time, I was limited in the amount of time I could spend on outside activities (about two days per month); moreover I had ongoing research work that was not easy to completely put aside. As the draft report started to be put together, I found many statements throughout what grew into a large review document that needed attention. The time commitment escalated; some committee members were inserting sentences here and there throughout the document on an ongoing basis; when we would catch a problem and fix (e.g. delete) it in one part of the document, something very similar to the deleted text would appear elsewhere in the document. It became almost a competition; it was a time consuming and stressful process.

In any review, each committee member must understand from the outset that he or she bears responsibility. However, going in to this review process I was not fully prepared for the degree of involvement that was needed; I have not experienced this kind of aggressive “review capture” behavior before or since. I spoke up repeatedly, fully reviewed the document, and worked to ensure that the document did not misrepresent my views or those of other committee members. After I questioned statements in the draft about what “most” of the committee agreed on, SAB even organized a public conference call in which committee members voted on statements in the text, to ensure that committee views were not misrepresented. In the end, however, the process of reviewing numerous complex scientific questions with a difficult committee did not result in a smooth and nuanced document. At the end of our process, I was not fully confident that the draft review document developed by the ac hoc review committee was ready for release.

Fortunately, the SAB has a two-tier review structure: the top level chartered SAB board reviews the draft reports developed by ad hoc SAB committees to determine whether they are appropriate to finalize and to send to the EPA Administrator as an SAB report. In the case of the dioxin reassessment review, the chartered SAB substantially revised our document before issuing it in final form (SAB 2001).

There was fall-out from the 2000-2001 dioxin review process. There were staff changes at the SAB. And the procedures for vetting of SAB panelists and committee members were substantially revised. There is now a public nomination process of experts when a new ad hoc panel is formed for a review; there is opportunity for public comment on candidate experts; there is a new requirement for a Confidential Financial Disclosure that allows EPA’s SAB Staff Office to review information for conflict of interest and appearance of lack of impartiality; and there is publication of a determination memo explaining the panel formation process for each review.

I have served on many SAB panels, reviews, and committees. With this one exception, all have been conducted with the highest scientific standards and with collegiality, and have attracted little outside interest. The 2000-2001 dioxin review was unique; it was the kind of situation that most scientists will probably never experience in their careers; it is not representative of the SAB. However, I have discussed it here to show that this can happen; somewhere something like this will happen again. Scientists need to be vigilant and active; scientists need to be ready to work hard against pressure to ensure that their advisory work is a credit to science and provides sound information to decision-makers.

Serving as an advisory committee member is a public trust. Experts who serve as Special Government Employees are subject to federal ethics regulations. Committee members also participate in a public process governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, where deliberations happen in a fishbowl. Public scrutiny and public comment are part of that system and scientists who give generously of their time must have a thick skin.

A few years ago, the discovery of errors in an assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) became a subject of intense media coverage. That episode called into question all of the work of the IPCC, which aims to provide policy makers and the public with understanding of climate change (Biello 2010). The circumstances of the errors in the IPCC documents were quite different from the dioxin story I described above. Yet here again, it is clear in retrospect that a broader and more careful review by more of the participating scientists, and a stronger internal vetting process, could have avoided a great deal of confusion and bad publicity for the IPCC.

A number of scientists have written up their experience and reflections on scientists in the policy arena. von Hippel (1991) has written on policy challenges from nuclear arms control to energy, and the role of the citizen scientist. Kammen (1996) provides reflection and advice as well as a list of resources for scientists interested in getting involved in policy. Cozzens (2001) focuses on science and technology professionals — those that work full time on these issues — and provides a useful set of references on science and technology policy. Morgan and Peha (2003) have written about science and technology advice for congress. Acton (2008) traces his path from physics to international security policy. Most recently, Scheie (2012) writes of his experience as an undergraduate summer intern in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

These and numerous other examples show that participating in science and technology policy can be a normal part of the careers of many scientists and engineers. With sufficient determination, scientists and engineers can find opportunities to serve as advisors. However, even modest committee work carries responsibility. The job is not to rubber-stamp but to bring disciplined scientific thinking to the task, especially when there is external or peer-pressure.

Acton, J. 2008. Working in Physics: Securing Your Future. Physics World. August, p. 46.

Biello, D. 2010. IPCC Errors Prompt Review by International Science Academies. Scientific American.

Cozzens, S. 2001. Science and Technology Policy Professionals: Jobs, Work, Knowledge and Values. 2001 AAAS Workshop on Science and Technology Policy Careers.

Jasanoff, S. 1998. The Fifth Branch: Science Advisors as Policy Makers. Harvard University Press.

Kammen, D. M. 1996. A Personal Introduction to Opportunities and Resources for Research and Activism in Energy and Environmental Science and Policy. Physics and Society 25.

Morgan, M. Granger ,and Peha, J. M. 2003. Science and Technology Advice for Congress. RFF Press, Washington DC.

SAB (Science Advisory Board, US Environmental Protection Agency), 2001. Dioxin Reassessment - An SAB Review of the Office of Research and Development’s Reassessment of Dioxin. EPA-SAB-EC-01-006.

Scheie, A. 2012. My Summer as a Congressional Intern. Physics and Society 42 (2): 16.

von Hippel, F. Citizen Scientist: The Collected Essays of Frank von Hippel. AIP Press, 1991.


Valerie M. Thomas
School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and School of Public Policy,
Georgia Institute of Technology,

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.