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Ensuring Sound Science

National Academies discuss politicization of science, barriers to retention of top experts

August 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 33



Attracting and retaining high-quality scientists in government service has been a long-standing problem. And creating scientific advisory panels that are perceived as balanced and fair for government agencies has been problematic for decades.

In mid-July, the National Academies' Committee on Science, Education & Public Policy (COSEPUP) held an open meeting to discuss how to ensure that federal advisory committees are balanced and free from major conflicts of interest and how to create conditions that will attract and retain the best scientists in executive positions in government.

The meeting was prompted in part because of the great deal of attention that the issue of political influence on advisory committee nominations has received recently. Many articles have been published in both the general and scientific press over the past few months alleging that researchers have been rejected as federal advisory board members because they admitted they did not vote for President George W. Bush or because they refused to answer questions regarding their political party affiliation. There has also been widespread reporting that scientists at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) have been subjected to unusual constraints that hamper their ability to participate freely as advisers to international organizations.

At the COSEPUP meeting, leaders from inside and outside the government made presentations. They provided insights as to why disputes over the impartiality and politicization of advisory committees can easily arise and offered advice on how to improve the appointment process. Some also commented on incentives and disincentives that now exist for scientists to assume executive positions in government.

Robert Flaak, senior policy adviser at the General Services Administration (GSA), told the conference that in 2003 there were about 976 federal advisory committees with a total of 62,000 members. Of these committees, 216 were scientific or technical. He reminded attendees that "the Federal Advisory Committee Act [FACA] requires the committee memberships to be fairly balanced in terms of points of view."

Advisory committee members are appointed in two ways: as unpaid "special government employees," who provide advice on behalf of the government on the basis of their best judgment, and as "representatives," who are expected to represent the point of view of an industry or special-interest group. Special government employees must meet federal requirements pertaining to freedom from conflict of interest by submitting detailed financial disclosures. Representatives are not required to file such disclosures. The current process of filling out financial forms is difficult and time-consuming, Flaak said, and it should be streamlined.

Christine Fishkin, an assistant director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office), discussed the findings of a GAO report on federal advisory committees published in April. GAO found that some departments and agencies--the Departments of Agriculture, of Energy, and of the Interior, in particular--"have a long-standing practice of appointing nearly all advisory committee members as representatives," Fishkin said. Because representatives submit no financial disclosures, allegations of conflicts of interest can easily arise, calling into question the independence of the committees and jeopardizing the credibility of their work, she said. For this reason, most members of scientific advisory panels should be appointed as special government employees, she added.


EVEN THOUGH FACA requires that panels be balanced in terms of points of view and expertise, many agencies do not obtain enough background information on prospective committee members to determine whether panels are balanced, Fishkin said. "With the exception of [the Environmental Protection Agency], most agencies do not look into background information," she said.

GSA is developing guidelines that will provide agencies with direction on obtaining such information. "With clear guidance, we believe it unlikely agencies would ask" inappropriate questions, such as a person's political affiliation, Fishkin said. "Perceptions of federal advisory committees as politicized" can make their work less credible, she explained.

Using only representatives on advisory panels probably does not stem from "confusion on the part of the agencies" about government policies but rather is a deliberate attempt to avoid the rigmarole involved with requiring financial disclosures, said Marilyn L. Glynn, acting director of the independent U.S. Office of Government Ethics. However, many people do not realize that the ethics rules are somewhat relaxed for advisory committee members, she explained. Minor conflicts of interest, such as owning a small amount of stock in a company that could benefit from the decisions of an advisory panel, do not necessarily prevent a scientist from being appointed to the committee, she said. If the expertise is needed, waivers can be given for a minimal interest in an affected company, Glynn said.

One step EPA has taken to improve balance on its advisory committees is to place notices in the Federal Register asking for nominations from the public. It then lists potential members on a website and solicits public comment, Flaak said.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was one of nine speakers at the meeting from outside the government. UCS has been critical of the Administration's practices on selecting advisory committee members. "There is mounting concern in the scientific community about the Bush Administration's suppression and distortion of scientific analyses and its politicization of appointments to federal scientific advisory panels," Meyer said.

UCS has prepared two detailed reports this year, he said, in which it "documented numerous instances where scientists nominated to advisory committees have been asked about their political views--even whether they voted for President Bush." These cases involve many departments and agencies.

In addition, about 4,500 scientists have signed a UCS statement entitled "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking," Meyer said. These include 48 Nobel Laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, and 129 members of the National Academy of Sciences. The statement says, "When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the Administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its policies."

Before 2001, Meyer maintains, directors of institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health nominated highly distinguished scientists who they believed would be appropriate for their advisory councils, and the nominees were routinely approved by the HHS secretary's office. But under the Bush Administration, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson's office has rejected many nominees.

Meyer described one example. Gerald T. Keusch, until last December director of NIH's Fogarty International Center, recommended 26 scientists he considered to be highly qualified for his advisory council, and Thompson's office rejected 19 of them, including a Nobel Laureate. The NIH advisory councils, Meyer explained, deal almost exclusively with science, not policy, issues, recommending future directions for research for the institutes and centers and providing a second layer of peer review.

"From conversations with scientists who have recently left agencies, such as [the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention], NIH, EPA, and Interior ... it's clear that if this pattern of abuse continues, there will be an exodus of scientific talent from the federal government," Meyer cautioned.

He urged COSEPUP to do something about these problems. "First and foremost, you should acknowledge the depth of concern in the scientific community about these abuses and highlight the barrier this is creating to recruitment and retention of top scientific talent. You should make some specific recommendations for reforms that, while not guaranteeing these abuses will never happen in the future, will make them less likely to occur," he said.


"The discussion must be broader" than the political vetting of advisory board nominees, said David M. Michaels, research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services, at the meeting. "Political vetting and manipulation of science and scientists within the agencies are perhaps more disturbing than the examples of litmus tests for advisory committee appointees," he said. He noted that federal scientists wor king for HHS now must be cleared by Secretary Thompson's office before they are allowed to serve as technical advisers to any international body and must submit notifications of foreign travel if they want to travel to any international organization, even those in downtown Washington, D.C. This is the first Administration that has instituted such requirements, he explained.


"It is not an exaggeration to say that the U.S. science agencies are facing a crisis," Michaels said. Senior leaders at many of them are leaving the government, he said.

PRESENTATIONS by political representatives at the meeting showed that resolving the issue will be hard. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) presented diametrically opposed views about whether advisory panel members should be asked to disclose their political views.


When interviewing scientists for executive positions and for advisory committees, it is appropriate to ask the candidates' party affiliation and for whom they voted, Ehlers, a nuclear physicist, said. "Scientists need to understand the political process. I don't think scientists should consider themselves a privileged class--that politics is for everyone else and not for them," he explained. "Scientists in executive positions need to be in tune with the President's philosophy. But that does not mean that the President should appoint only those in his own party," he said.

Waxman agreed that "if the President is making an appointment to a policy-making position, the candidate should be in tune with the President's philosophy. But for scientific advisory committees," he said, "the situation is different. I don't know of any instance during a Democratic Administration of a scientist being rejected as a candidate for an advisory committee for being of the opposite party. ... If the best scientists see the government doing some kind of litmus test, they will likely say, 'I don't want to be part of the process,' " he contended.

The White House is trying to stack panels with scientists who agree with it, Waxman claimed. "On issue after issue, this Administration seems to start with the policies it is planning to pursue, and then seek advice that justifies a predetermined choice. Rather than scientific experts pointing the way to good policy, politics appears to be dictating the choice of experts and what they say. It risks the faith of the American people in the ability of science to point the way to solutions," he explained.

COSEPUP will be preparing a report from this conference that is not expected to be released until shortly after the November election. This is the third time the academies' panel has considered the problems of scientists in government service. The first two reports were written in 1992 and 2000 and focused on the problem of retaining government scientists. Many of the recommendations COSEPUP made in those reports have not yet been implemented.

But the advisory panel flap is not a new problem either. Paul R. Portney, president of Resources for the Future, tells C&EN that ever since the Carter Administration, "there have been questions raised about the composition of peer review panels. So this is not a new debate by any means."

He believes that in some cases, it is appropriate to inquire about the political affiliation of a candidate for a scientific advisory panel. "If a panel is dealing with a science policy issue, I can understand you would want a balance of political perspectives on an ideal panel," Portney explains. "In this case, asking about a candidate's political party might be germane."

But if a panel is dealing with a purely technical issue, such as toxicological tests or atmospheric chemistry study design, "it seems to be irrelevant to ask for whom the person voted," Portney says.

To provide one way of ensuring that the scientific advice given to Congress is independent and shielded from charges of politicization, a bipartisan group of representatives led by Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced a bill in June that would create a new congressional science advisory body. The new organization would be similar to the Office of Technology Assessment, which was eliminated in 1995, but would be overseen by GAO.

The new body would be called the Center for Scientific & Technical Assessment, Holt says. It "would be a bipartisan resource providing Congress with highly respected, impartial analysis and assessment of scientific and technical issues," he explains. Although Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, has expressed support for the bill, he does not plan to hold hearings on it this year.



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