by J.R. Pegg
(ENS) WASHINGTON --
scientists are growing increasingly worried that the Bush administration is manipulating scientific advisory committees in order to further its political agenda.
The federal government relies on hundreds of these committees to provide agencies with unbiased advice based on the best science available as well as to peer review grant proposals for scientific research.
The Bush administration, many scientists fear, has distorted this process by putting committee members through political litmus tests, eliminating committees whose findings looked likely to disagree with its policies, and stacking committees with individuals who have a vested interest in steering conclusions to benefit effected industries.
"We've seen a consistent pattern of putting people in who will ensure that the administration hears what it wants to hear," said Dr. David Michaels, a research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University's School of Public Health. Addressing reporters at a press briefing today in Washington, Dr. Michaels said, "That doesn't help science, and it doesn't help the country."
The Bush administration says it is doing what every other administration has done in the past, but many scientists take issue with this defense.
"The Clinton administration did not do this," said Dr. Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. "They did not exclude people based on some sort of litmus test."
"These are not just the concerns of a few scientists or members of the public health community but of a broad array of people across the country," added Kelly O'Brien, associate executive director of public affairs for the American Public Health Association (APHA).
The role of these committees is not to tell the administration what they want to hear, Michaels argues, but to tell them what science has concluded about the issue under discussion.
"You hire political appointees to move your political agenda forward," he observes. "But the role of scientific advisory committees is quite different. It is to give advice to the agencies and to the public on what is the best science."
"This is a threat to the fundamental principles that we want to make decisions based on the best available science," Goldberg added.
Americans may be unfamiliar with the role of scientific advisory committees, but the impact of the advice they give is extensive. Rules and regulations that govern clean air, clean water, food safety and pesticide use, among others, have been devised with scientific advice from such committees.
The growing concern from American scientists comes from a slew of examples. Members of the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention were replaced last year with individuals with close ties to the lead industry, including Dr. William Banner, who has provided written testimony on behalf of lead industry defendants in a lawsuit in Rhode Island.
Banner is on record as believing that lead is only harmful in levels that are seven to 10 times higher than the current CDC blood lead levels. The CDC estimates some 890,000 U.S. children ages one to five have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Fifteen of the 18 members of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Health Center for Environmental Health were replaced last year. This committee assesses the health impact of exposure to environmental chemicals. Among the new members is the former president of the Chemical Industry Institute for Toxicology.
Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), dissolved a committee charged with analyzing the federal system for protecting human research subjects. A committee tasked with giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advice on oversight of the genetics testing industry was similarly disbanded.
A respected scientist nominated to serve on an HHS peer review study section, which is charged with reviewing research grant proposals submitted to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was rejected for her support of an ergonomics rule overturned by the Bush administration last year.
A consultant to the Army Science Board was disapproved for full membership on the committee because, he was told, he contributed to Senator John McCain's campaign, an allegation that was false.
A new member of the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, Dr. David Hager, helped the Christian Medical Association lobby for a safety review of a drug the committee approved two years ago. The announcement that Hager, who has very few research credits, had been put on the committee was released on Christmas Eve.
The trouble with this politicization of the process by which scientists advise the government, Michaels explained, is that they will directly impact the government's willingness to act.
"I don't think there is really any danger of a committee coming out and making a statement so far out of the mainstream that it takes us in a different direction," he explained. "What these committees will do, and I think this is what the administration wants, is to essentially throw their hands up and say there is too much uncertainty. That sort of paralysis is dangerous."
The trust the public has in science, and in the scientific advice offered by the government for public health issues, could be gravely affected by these developments, said Dr. Martin Apple, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
"Public trust is like Humpty Dumpty," Apple said. "It is difficult to establish, easy to lose and nearly impossible to restore."
It is not that anyone expects scientific advisory committee members to be completely unbiased, Goldman said. Rather, it is critical that these committees are focused only on the science, leaving political, economic and religious bias out of the equation.
"If you attempt to predetermine the outcome of the scientific discussion by selecting certain people for science committees or by constructing a consensus before you bring the group together, then you are distorting the process," Goldman added. "For the past several months, again and again with this current administration, we've seen evidence of this occurring."
Goldman, who served as the assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticide and Toxic Substances within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1993 to 1998, has firsthand experience with the Bush administration's policy on scientific advisory committees. Goldman and two other experts on the effects of pesticides on children were invited to speak at an EPA funded conference that was scheduled for September 2002.
In July 2002, representatives from the pesticides industry wrote to the EPA to protest the conference and specifically the participation of Goldman and the other two scientists at the event. The EPA then rescheduled the conference for June 2003 and has not re invited any of the three.
The overarching concern, Goldman said, is the apparent influence of the pesticide industry on the EPA.
California Representative Henry Waxman, a Democrat, agreed and sent EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman a letter on December 20, 2002 asking for an explanation by January 6, 2003.
Waxman's spokesperson Karen Lightfoot told ENS that the Congressman has not received any response from the EPA.
In late October 2002, Waxman and 11 other members of Congress sent a letter to HHS Secretary Thompson, detailing concern with "a pattern of events ... suggesting that scientific decision making is being subverted by ideology and that scientific information that does not fit the administration's political agenda is being suppressed."
HHS did reply to Waxman and his colleagues, but their explanations did not satisfy the letter writers. A subsequent letter asking for more detailed information was sent on December 18, 2002.
Lightfoot said there has been no response to the December 18 letter, but added that Congressman Waxman will closely monitor "this trend of putting ideology before science."
Groups like the American Public Health Association, which has some 50,000 members, are calling on Congress to further explore just what the Bush administration is doing with scientific advisory committees. APHA drafted a series of recommendations, including the reevaluation of newly reconstituted advisory panels and the creation of criteria to guide the selection of members on public health advisory committees and peer review research committees at all levels of government - federal, state and local.
There is concern that if the process continues forward without serious review that many qualified scientists will decline to involve themselves with future committees.
"Scientists and the federal government in the United States have established an effective system of providing expert advice," Apple said. "But the best scientists are only willing to serve on such advisory groups when they believe that they are unbiased and will produce scientifically sound results. Once this currency is debased, the best scientists will decline to take the time out from their lives to participate, and the government will lose an irreplaceable resource."
"This will cause severe and last damage to the national interest and should be actively prevented," Apple urged.
There is "no glory" for scientists to take part in the vast majority of scientific advisory committees, Michaels said. They are only compensated for travel and accommodations, and the work is often long and tedious.
"It is quite possible that these are isolated, anecdotal incidents," Goldman suggested. "But then why hasn't there been an attempt to rectify them?"
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