Feature

Since last summer, members of the scientific community have become increasingly concerned that federal scientific advisory committees are being unduly influenced by political considerations.

Their concerns have been spurred by a series of controversial decisions by the agencies that administer those committees, including:

  • The appointment of scientists with ties to the lead industry to a committee on childhood lead poisoning that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • The announcement, later withdrawn, that a physician who opposes the use of contraceptives would be appointed as the interim chair of a committee on medications for reproductive health.

  • The decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to replace the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee with a smaller committee, the charter of which describes embryos and fetuses as "human subjects."

Last fall, media reports suggested that HHS was also applying political litmus tests to some of the nominees for its scientific advisory boards and peer-review panels.

William Miller, PhD, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico who studies addiction, is one of the scientists who say they have been subjected to such tests. Miller says he received a call from a White House liaison in January 2002 about his nomination to the National Advisory Committee on Drug Abuse. (About a third of the members are psychologists.)

The staffer asked him a number of politically loaded questions, says Miller, including questions about his stance on faith-based initiatives, abortion, capital punishment, needle-exchange programs and drug legalization.

After each question, says Miller, the staffer gave him a running tally of "correct" answers--those that matched President Bush's policies. The staffer also asked him whether he had voted for Bush in the 2000 presidential election and, when Miller said he had not, asked him why he hadn't.

"The implication was that regardless of the science, the president did not want to receive any advice that would be 'embarrassing' to or inconsistent with his own political agenda," says Miller.

HHS has defended the way it selects the members of its more than 250 advisory committees both to the media and to members of Congress.

"We're appointing people who maybe hold differences of opinion from previous committees, but if you look on balance we're appointing a broad spectrum of people," says HHS spokesman Bill Pierce. "There's nothing unusual or untoward or different going on here that doesn't go on all the time."

Last September, the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Research, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to prepare a report on the advisory committees. When this issue of the Monitor went to press, the GAO was in the process of determining the scope and methods of the investigation.

Members of the scientific community have expressed concerns that making appointments on the basis of ideology could weaken the quality of scientific advice provided by the committees.

"When policy-makers appoint scientists to advisory councils, they will profit most when they choose scientists whose science affects their policy, not the other way around," says Kurt Salzinger, PhD, APA's executive director for science.

Even if the vast majority of appointments have been fair--and most observers agree they have been--the alleged politicization of the appointment process threatens to undermine the credibility of the councils, psychologists and other scientists say.

"Scientific appointments should be made exclusively on the basis of scientific credentials," says APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, of Yale University. "To do otherwise undermines the integrity of the appointment process. It leads to reduced credibility of the appointees and may lead people to question the motives of the appointers. The recommendations made by political appointees about scientific issues may be taken less seriously than everyone would like.

"Science is apolitical; scientific appointments should be as well," Sternberg notes.