From the Science Directorate

In every administration, questions arise over how science should or does influence policy decisions.

APA Weighs in for Balanced Science Advice

APA Weighs in for Balanced Science Advice

By Geoffrey Mumford, Public Policy Office

In every administration, questions arise over how science should or does influence policy decisions. But, last September, an article in The Washington Post significantly changed the volume of that debate here in DC and across the country. The article focused on the apparent arbitrary decision at the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to dissolve advisory committees related to the protection of human subjects (National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee, NHRPAC) and, separately, genetics testing (Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, SACGT). The same article suggested that the rosters of other committees were undergoing dramatic turnover generating additional concerns about new appointees and the appointment process in general. The article and several others that followed in the lay and scientific press gained the immediate attention of Congress and began to create a buzz in the scientific community.

The so-called sunset provisions were built into the advisory committee process to ensure a regular review of committee activities. Those committees that had met the goals of their charters and completed their agenda, it was thought, should be terminated in the name of streamlined government. Although the media buzz seemed to suggest this was a novel action by a newly dominant Republican majority, attempts to radically reduce the numbers of advisory committees were actually hallmarks of both the Carter and Clinton Administrations. But while it is the prerogative of every administration to make these sorts of adjustments, the apparent dissolution of these two committees came at a time when ethical issues related to human subjects and genetic testing had become front burner issues.

As members of both the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences APA endorsed letters praising the work of NHRPAC and SACGT and recommend that the Secretary of DHHS reconsider his decision to terminate them. Whether or not as a result of that input, Secretary Thompson in fact did reinstate the committees, and they have since been re-chartered with slightly different names and foci. So we now have the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP) and the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health and Society (SACHS). Thankfully, APA member Celia Fisher was appointed to the SACHRP and while behavioral science is not currently well represented on the SACHS, we will continue to supply nominations.

Background concerns related to the appointment process continued to fester and actually worsened. Articles and letters in the journal Science suggested that the alleged politicization of advisory council appointments had even penetrated the sacrosanct world of peer review study sections. But perhaps the mostly widely publicized story and the one that really hit home for APA was that of University of New Mexico researcher (and APA Fellow) Bill Miller concerning his vetting for the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. As reported by Mother Jones, Dr. Miller’s voting record, as well as his views on abortion and the death penalty, played into a negative evaluation of his nomination. Congressional Democrats seized on details of Dr. Miller’s interview to raise a number of pointed questions about the appointment process with DHHS.

With Congress doing the heavy lifting on the issue, APA’s senior management asked the Public Policy Office to continue monitoring the situation and to look for opportunities to collaborate with other organizations. We learned of two substantive activities taking place and immediately joined in an effort to support them.

First we learned Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who serves as the top Democrat on the Research Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, requested that the General Accounting Office (GAO) initiate an investigation. The GAO agreed to the request and while it was still making decisions about the scope of the investigation, APA advised leaders in the scientific community so that they could provide comments. However, APA also began to hear from individual scientists who were concerned about possible professional repercussions for cooperating with the investigation. So APA worked with GAO staff to secure a provision that the GAO would not include the names of individual scientists in their notes or final report. APA then sent summary information about the investigation to the Executive Committees of all APA Divisions and the administrators of all APA Division listservs for dissemination.

The second opportunity evolved through APA contacts with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Following a series of background discussions, Norman Anderson was invited, as APA's CEO, to appear before the NAS Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), to discuss the issue of the appointments and procedures of federal advisory committees on February 19, 2003. Along with the Science Advisors to Presidents Nixon, Bush Sr., and Clinton, representatives of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Public Health Association (APHA) were invited to participate. A statement of task circulated in advance proposed the formation of an ad hoc Federal Science Advisory Committee under the auspices of COSEPUP and provided a framework for the discussion on the February meeting.

Statement of Task
The ad hoc committee is charged with analyzing the federal government’s capacity to select highly qualified individuals for the top science and technology (S&T)-related advisory committees in the executive branch. This committee will assess the current recruiting environment, the appointments available, and provide guidelines for obtaining the most qualified candidates.

Some of the specific questions to be explored by the committee include:

  • What roles do federal scientific and technical advisory committees play in advising the federal government? How many exist, and to whom do they give advice? What relationships do they have with those to whom they give advice?

  • What processes are currently used for the appointment of scientists and engineers to these committees?

  • What mechanisms have existed in the past?

  • Are the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and related federal agency policies adequate to safeguard the independence of and maintain an appropriate balance of viewpoints in scientific and technical federal advisory committees?

  • What principles should guide the selection of appointees to the advisory committees? What actions, if any, should be taken by Congress and the executive branch to strengthen the committees?

The meeting participants were encouraged to address the following four sets of questions and then engaged in a free-flowing open-ended discussion. Dr. Anderson’s statement can be found at:

  1. What are your general thoughts regarding the issue of science, engineering, and health professional appointments to federal advisory committees?

  2. Do you believe that COSEPUP should undertake a study to identify the principles that should guide such appointments?

  3. What are your thoughts on the proposed statement of task?

  4. If a study is undertaken, what type of individuals should be on the committee? Who should chair it? What should be the timeframe?

It is likely that results from the GAO investigation will be ready in December 2003. It may be that COSEPUP will wait for the results of that investigation before developing its broader guidance document. APA members with information directly relevant to the GAO investigation should contact Ross Campbell at (202) 512-6550 or or Christine Fishkin at
(202) 512-6895