External scientific advice at the Department of Energy

Energy department abolishes science advisory board

At a time when the President has set forth initiatives to improve American competitiveness and to reduce energy dependence, the Energy Department is abolishing its science advisory board.

SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD IS ABOLISHED Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman has decided to abolish his department’s Science Advisory Board, a panel of experts that has served energy secretaries since the Carter administration. The board includes scientists, business leaders and former government officials who assign thorny technical questions from the secretary to subcommittees that respond with detailed reports. A spokesman for Mr. Bodman confirmed the decision, first reported in the journal Nature, and said Mr. Bodman, a former chemical engineer, judged the board to be unnecessary after President Bush set the department agenda in his State of the Union address. MICHAEL JANOFSKY (NYT)

This is the extent of the discussion in the press outside an article in Nature (available only by subscription). The Board (SEAB) is described further here. Since Secretary Bodman was a former associate professor at MIT, he clearly has plenty of technical expertise. But that was back in 1965-71, and in chemical engineering. Unclear to me whether this means he is well placed to give himself advice on Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure, Science and Mathematics Education, Nuclear Energy, Energy, Technologies and the American Economy, and Laboratory Operations (these are the subcommittees of the SEAB).
I find the assertion that the DoE doesn’t need advice now that the President has laid out energy goals as amusing, given the glaring deficiencies in his plans. Indeed, I would say DoE (and the rest of the Administration) could do with all the external (public) advice it could get. Nature provides its viewpoint in an editorial:

The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) is not the most
charismatic or influential body to offer advice to the US federal
government, and few people will even notice it has gone.
Nonetheless its abolition, without any satisfactory replacement (see
page 725), once again raises the spectre of the Bush administration’s
loathing for anything that resembles objective outside advice.

Before dispensing with SEAB’s services, energy secretary Samuel
Bodman said he liked to operate with fewer advisers. This was a
curious statement from the standard-bearer of an energy policy
that has been dogged, since early in President Bush’s first term, by
allegations that it was fixed during closed-door meetings between
Vice-President Dick Cheney and oil-industry lobbyists.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its contempt for
time-honoured Washington government practice. It was during the
presidency of Richard Nixon that Congress passed several laws
intended to open up the workings of government to public scrutiny.
One such measure was the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act,
which established a framework for advisory panels in which government-
appointed experts would meet to discuss the issues and advise
the government, in full public view.

SEAB was such a panel, made up in part of scientists and engineers.
Notwithstanding the fact that the energy secretary can
put who he wants on it, and the drawback that painful truths will
often be kept quiet, it managed to do some good work. Last July,
for example, it produced a stinging report on duplication in the
energy department’s nuclear-weapons laboratories. The labs’ powerful
supporters, led by Senator Pete Domenici (Republican, New
Mexico), duly did their best to bury the report. Perhaps no one will
ever know whether they also played a role in Bodman’s decision to
bury SEAB itself.

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3 thoughts on “External scientific advice at the Department of Energy

  1. Robert Schwartz

    Politics. The Daily News once asked a candidate for Surrogate in Brooklyn if he would appoint his friends to guardianships. The candidate replied: “Who am I supposed to appoint? My enemies?”

  2. anonymous

    What is it the Department of Energy does, again? And how much does that cost us ?
    DOE might not need anyone looking over their shoulder but the taxpayers could sure use some help.

  3. pat

    I am divided on how should I feel: on the one hand, I am dismayed that no external scientific advice will be an input to DOE’s decision making process; on the other hand, given that this administration never intends to use any objective assessments, it is good that they stop pretending …

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