Science Advice or Political Cover?
What type of advice are political leaders looking for?
Science advisory committees are being dissed by the Bush administration according to recent stories in Science, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Several committees that provide scientific input to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have been disbanded or completely repopulated with new members. Some committee members and observers see ideological foul play. They argue that the administration is seeking advice that fits better with its already formulated positions on topics such as genetic testing, environmental hazards, and protection of human research subjects. A few jaded observers yawn that no one listens to these committees anyway, Casablanca fans exclaim that they are “shocked” that politics could enter into the choice of members of science advisory committees, and professional wrestling aficionados argue that the best fights are fixed. Certainly the Clinton administration would have considered nothing but scientific reputation in choosing its advisors. As I used to say as a teenager: Rrrrright!
One group that has been disbanded is the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, a creation of the Clinton administration in the wake of a government report that warned that some “home-brew” genetic tests could provide misleading information to consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Clinton administration had argued that it had the authority to regulate these tests but did not do so because it lacked the resources. The Clinton-appointed committee agreed that these tests could pose a danger to consumers and encouraged FDA to exercise its authority over the tests. Today’s FDA apparently is not confident that it has the authority to regulate the tests. The committee’s two-year charter recently expired, and the administration has decided not to renew it. HHS spokesman William Pierce told the Post that the administration has plans to create a new advisory committee that will address this question as well as a broad range of other concerns about genetic technologies.
How shocked should we be? The committee may well be right that these tests need to be regulated, and the administration might simply be looking for a way to protect these companies from regulation. But the administration did not express an opinion on that scientific subject. It questioned FDA’s authority to regulate. That’s a policy question that science advisory committees can’t answer. If action is called for, we may have to take the long road through legislation to establish unambiguously that FDA can and should regulate the tests.
Clinton also created the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee to look into charges that human subjects were not being afforded adequate protection in research studies. This committee is also being disbanded and supposedly replaced with a new committee with a broader mandate. Theories to explain the demise of this group are proliferating like political fundraisers. One view is that industry groups did not like the committee’s recommendation to tighten conflict-of-interest rules. Another explanation is that the committee resisted the administration’s desire to have human subject protections extended to fetuses–a backdoor attack on abortion. Fueling this rumor is the statement by HHS officials that they would like physician Mildred Jefferson, a cofounder and former president of the National Right to Life Committee, to serve on the replacement committee. Abortion is obviously a hot-button issue for the Bush administration, and many scientists are concerned by the efforts of abortion foes to block federal support of research into embryonic stem cells. If the committee becomes an avenue for restricting research in areas that scientists believe are important, that’s a problem. The restrictions on the use of human research subjects are more ambiguous. Many scientists who feel strongly about the need to protect the people who participate as research subjects are also worried that excessive and poorly designed regulations could hinder research without enhancing protection. The question does not divide neatly along political lines.
A third committee attracting attention is one that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health. This group recently learned that 15 of its 18 members are being replaced, and that the outgoing chair was not even asked to recommend new members. Critics of the action complain that the new members include the former head of an industry-funded research institute, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and two experts who regularly provide expert witness testimony to support chemical industry positions in court. They see this as appointing the fox to guard the chickens.
If this was truly a science advisory group, the industry connections should not matter. If these are experts who publish in the scholarly literature and are respected by their colleagues, we should be encouraging them to share their expertise in the courtroom no matter whose case it supports. I can’t speak to the credentials of the new committee members. Would I be surprised if some were chosen for their conclusions rather than the quality of the research that led to these conclusions? No. Is this part of the general confusion that surrounds the use of science in public policy? Yes.
When committee members are being selected for federal advisory committees, the temptation to root for the home team–not your office colleagues, but those who share your opinions on controversial questions–is very powerful. When your candidate wins the election and follows his ideological muse, the committee members, seen through the right glasses, seem eminently qualified and fair-minded. If their views on upcoming debates are a tad predictable, at least their consistency is admirable. The problem occurs when the other candidate wins, and the appointment muse sings a different song.
Wouldn’t we all be better off if the committees were composed of reputable experts with a variety of political perspectives who were able to acknowledge scientific consensus and uncertainty and to separate that from political consensus and uncertainty? Such committees would rarely provide a simple rubber stamp for a predetermined policy. They would help define what aspects of a policy decision are scientific and what are political. A group of climate scientists could agree that carbon emissions from automobiles make a significant contribution to global warming, but they could admit that they are not qualified to say whether a carbon tax or fuel-efficiency standards are the best way to control carbon emissions. A group of medical researchers could evaluate the likelihood that research with embryonic stem cells could lead to useful medical applications, but they would leave the discussion of abortion politics to others. Actually, in each of these cases, the scientists should form opinions on the political questions, but they should express them as independent citizens, not as members of an expert advisory committee.
OK, it’s not the most practical solution, but it could be a useful standard. It is too soon to pass judgment on the Bush administration’s use of scientific advisory committees. We can expect politics to play a role in the creation of committees and the selection of members. Nothing new there. But when we assess the administration’s performance, we should not compare what he did with what we think Al Gore might have done. Our standard should be an advisory committee structure that delivers clarity and insight, not a score for the home team. Do we want to see the naming of scientific advisory committees follow the path of judicial appointments?