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Shooting the messenger

The abolition of a science advisory board to the US government sends the wrong signal.

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.

“If Bodman disliked the direction the panel was taking, he could easily have incorporated people whose views were more to his liking.”

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.

Over the years, SEAB has managed to point out issues of waste and overlap in government laboratories that no one — department officials, Congress, contractors or staff — particularly wanted to see aired. It has periodically lent public backing to the energy department's vital but unheralded role in supporting basic research in the physical sciences. Manned as it was by such luminaries as Burton Richter, the Nobel laureate and former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and the energy economist Daniel Yergin, its output could hardly be dismissed as the work of a few renegades.

SEAB cost less than half-a-million dollars a year to run, yet it provided oversight for a department with an annual budget of more than $20 billion. If Bodman disliked the direction the panel was taking, he could easily have incorporated people whose views were more to his liking: at least their names would be public, for all to see. The decision to abolish it instead shows contempt for the principle of transparency in government.

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Shooting the messenger. Nature 440, 716 (2006).

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