No open minds allowed

April 25, 2003

Academic experts are being kicked off US government advisory committees to make room for industrial consultants, rightwing radicals and Christian fundamentalists. Stephen Phillips reports

In January 2002, William Miller, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, fielded a troubling telephone call from the White House. He had recently learnt that he had been nominated for the US government's national advisory committee on drug abuse. This influential panel of scientists is charged with counselling federal law-makers on drug policy and the direction that publicly funded research into addiction ought to take. So Miller assumed the official wanted to sound him out about the role. He was spot-on, but the conversation took a sinister turn that left him stunned.

The caller was upfront, Miller recounts: "I need to vet you in order to determine whether you hold any views embarrassing to the president."

In the interrogation, Miller was quizzed about his views on a gamut of hot topics, from abortion and delivery of publicly funded social services by religious groups to drug legalisation and needle exchanges. The caller then asked Miller whether he voted for George W. Bush. When he replied no, he was asked why not. Miller also recalls being questioned about where he stood on the execution of drug lords. The official punctuated his queries with a running total of correct answers.

"I said I was sympathetic to faith-based initiatives as long as they're accountable, and he said I was one-for-one. I don't favour drug legalisation, so I was two-for-two."

Then Miller professed support for needle-exchange programmes. Wrong answer, he was informed. Miller registered his opposition to capital punishment, but the official said they might be able to let this go provided he did not have specific objections to executing "drug kingpins".

"He said he'd check whether my views were acceptable and get back to me," Miller recalls. That call never came, and Miller was ultimately passed over.

With 30 years' experience and 30 books and 300 articles to his name, Miller seems an ideal candidate to counsel non-experts on charting a judicious course in a sensitive policy arena and strategic research field.

He is left to speculate that not concurring with Republican Party tenets ruled him out of the running. "It sounded like they wanted to ensure that they received scientific opinion (that fitted in) with their viewpoints."

This was no hoax, incidentally. Since Miller went public, his inquisitor has been tracked down and is no longer with the White House. Perhaps the incident can be ascribed to a renegade, over-zealous employee. After all, Miller says a colleague who did get the nod for the committee received no such grilling.

But testimonies from other scientists suggest that Miller's experience was no one-off. A "renowned academic" was interrogated over the phone about his views on embryo-cell research, cloning and doctor-assisted suicide by a government interviewer weighing his candidacy for a US health department advisory committee, The Washington Post reported last autumn.

About the same time, University of North Carolina epidemiology professor Dana Loomis complained that a candidate for an occupational safety panel she headed was blackballed for supporting a workplace ergonomics standard that Bush repealed.

Moreover, such cases of political screening represent perhaps only the most ham-fisted expressions of what a growing number of US scientists see as a systematic effort by ideologues in the Bush administration to rig advisory committees.

Government officials vigorously deny anything untoward. But amid mounting anecdotal evidence, critics have espied a disquieting pattern of weighting key environmental and health science policy panels with industry representatives, researchers with industry ties and evangelical Christians to advance an anti-regulatory and anti-abortion agenda - at the expense of respected experts.

"A lot of us view this as a mini dark age, a book-burning era of ideologues who are shame-faced about pandering to their funding interests," says Stephen Schneider, an environmental biology professor at Stanford University.

Barely less blatant than the use of so-called "political litmus tests" for prospective appointees to peer-review committees is the equally sinister-sounding practice of "ideologically stacking".

Rumblings began last August with the replacement of 15 of 18 members of a board counselling the government on environmental pollution with industry-friendly scientists.

The ousting of University of Rochester paediatrician Michael Weitzman from a lead pollution advisory panel also caused consternation. Weitzman has argued that low lead levels in the bloodstream may be harmful to children.

His replacement was William Banner, a University of Oklahoma professor and former lead-industry consultant who discounts this danger.

"Regulatory paralysis appears to be the goal here, rather than the application of honest, balanced science," concerned scientists wrote in a recent editorial in the journal Science.

In December, Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a leading bioethics think-tank, and a critic of Bush's controversial policy proscribing stem-cell research, was abruptly bumped from a committee advising the Food and Drug Administration on stem-cell science.

Despite not toeing the party line, neither Murray nor Weitzman is considered a radical. Those who have won official blessing include a part-time University of Kentucky medical faculty member who has asserted the healing power of faith in Jesus and an evangelical Christian who branded Aids a "gay plague" and homosexuality a "death-style".

The appointment of University of Kentucky obstetrician-gynaecologist David Hager to an influential FDA panel reviewing contraceptives incensed critics. Hager prescribes scripture readings for a range of maladies. Last year, he helped the Christian Medical Association raise a petition calling on the FDA to outlaw the so-called "abortion pill" - just the kind of drug that falls under the purview of the commission he will sit on.

A spokesman said the FDA prized "peopleI able to offer different perspectives" and sought fresh blood to break up "an old boys' network" that had developed in scientific bodies.

Bush officials also plumped for Jerry Thacker, a Pennsylvania marketing consultant who contracted HIV from his wife, to serve on the presidential advisory council on HIV/Aids. But Thacker declined the invitation amid the furore stoked by his homophobic comments.

Suspicion of partisan tampering with appointment procedures that hitherto have been merit based and apolitical has drawn the attention of Congress'

watchdog, the General Accounting Office, which is considering a probe into selections.

Political opponents have weighed in. "The pattern of actions we are watching is troubling," said Democratic senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's one thing to have a political perspective - which all of us do - but we are going to be in troubleI if we start moving toward theology-based science or ideological science."

Observers note that every US government has engaged in partisan appointments, but most concur that these seem more egregious under the current administration, and are being made in the absence of countervailing voices that might ensure even-handedness.

"The purpose of having scientists advise the government is to hear all the diverse viewpoints (it) might not otherwise haveI not as a rubber stamp for those they already hold," says Martin Apple, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.

One lightning rod for criticism is the Department of Health and Human Services, where the buck stops for many of the contentious appointments and within which health secretary Tommy Thompson is prosecuting an overhaul of 258 advisory boards.

Thompson recently disbanded a key commission providing oversight for human research subjects, reconstituting it with an industry-heavy membership and with a recapitulated charter extending its purview to embryos and foetuses.

There are also concerns that political considerations are retarding critical research. For instance, contingency studies of the projected impact of the warming climate trend represent a prudent course, Schneider says. But public funding is unavailable while the White House insists that humanity's role in global warming remains dubious and commissions yet more studies to pin this down.

A National Academy of Sciences report chides the administration for misrepresenting scientific orthodoxy about the link between greenhouse gases and global warming.

"When they highlight the uncertainty about climate change and the academy has to rebuke them for it, it's a pitiful statement about how comfortable they are acknowledging the scientific consensus," says Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Many observers see more studies as a ploy to defer policy action that would entail costs to the administration's corporate backers from curbing industrial emissions.

Daniel Kammen, public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suspects that similar cynicism may underpin Bush's recent ostensibly eco-friendly funding pledge for research into hydrogen-powered cars. Funding for the so-called freedom car will be at the expense of more immediately deliverable alternatives to fossil fuels, he notes, and no return on investment is required for six years.

Farther out, biologists fear that the sway of religious fundamentalists in Washington could chill biotechnology research. Law-makers are due to consider a bill later this month outlawing cloning not only for reproductive purposes but also in research - a distinction scientists are keen to draw.

"There's not much at stake yet, but if this turns out to be the area that the next generation of medical breakthroughs come from, then the current restrictions on funding will have a much larger opportunity cost," says Kei Koizumi, who tracks research funding for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

More immediately, Koizumi notes that prodigious defence spending is "crowding out investment in education". While Bush flexes US military muscle and plots a bold new foreign policy course as the leader of an unopposed superpower, the irony is that cosiness with industry, religious prohibitions and comparative financial neglect of non-military research may squander the very intellectual capital that helped propel the US's international ascendance in the first place.

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