Can a scientist who is trying to land a $1.2 million grant from Philip Morris be counted on to objectively assess the risks of passive smoking?
If the answer is no, consider that the same scientist serves as an adviser to the American Lung Association.
That may sound like a pop quiz for law students, but such questions formed a real life puzzle for Environmental Protection Agency officials in search of outside scientists to evaluate an agency draft report on the risk of passive smoking.
Many of the scientists qualified to participate in the review had some link to the tobacco industry or to anti-smoking organizations. And with members of Congress and lobbyists weighing in, the search raised questions of whether it was possible to empanel totally unentangled experts to review such a politically charged issue.
When the 16-member group was assembled late last month, it contained so many scientists who were perceived to have a conflict or bias that virtually no one was satisfied.
"On most issues, there's a bell-shaped curve of informed opinion," said Donald Barnes, staff director of the EPA's Science Advisory Board. "We try to take informed scientists out of the center of that distribution so you don't find people rigidly for or against. In an issue as highly visible as smoking, however, there might not be this bell-shaped distribution with lots of folks in the center."
The controversy began last summer when the advisory board was asked to review a draft study by EPA researchers that concluded that as many as 3,800 Americans die of lung cancer every year from involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke.
If the draft report withstands criticism of the advisory board, which meets in Crystal City next month, the government would rank passive smoking as the third largest cause of lung cancer deaths -- after direct smoking and radon -- and possibly comply with a recommendation in the study that environmental tobacco smoke be ranked among a handful of substances as a known human carcinogen.
Although the EPA has no authority to regulate tobacco smoke, it plans to use the findings as basis for a guide to workplace smoking restrictions geared to decision-makers in government and private industry.
With so much at stake, Barnes and assistant Robert Flaak decided to expand the advisory board's seven-member committee on indoor air pollution, bringing in another nine consultants to help review the study. But in assembling the panel, they discovered that competence was easier to assure than independence -- even among the regular committee members.
For example, James E. Woods, Jr., a professor of building construction at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, has asked Philip Morris to fund a $1.2 million project to study methods of improving indoor ventilation. The project would employ six scientists, three graduate students and four staffers.
A mechanical engineer known for his work with "sick buildings," Woods pointed out that he began negotiating with the tobacco company long before the panel was asked to review the passive smoking study. Conceding the importance of the grant to his university, he nonetheless insisted that it would not compromise his decision-making. "I'm not going to allow it to influence me," he said.
Moreover, Woods noted, any link to the tobacco industry is balanced by his membership on the technical advisory group of the American Lung Association, which is anti-smoking.
Of the 16 reviewers, six scientists have some connection to the Center for Indoor Air Research, which was established and funded almost entirely by three tobacco companies -- Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Corp. Based in Linthicum, Md., the center distributes $4 million to $5 million per year to finance research projects on indoor air pollution, including environmental tobacco smoke, according to director Max Eisenberg.
Morton Lippmann, chairman of EPA's indoor air quality committee, serves on the center's advisory board, where he helps to chart its research objectives and decide which projects should be funded. Advisers earn an honorarium of $800 per day during the center's two-day meetings held once or twice annually, said Eisenberg.
Lippmann said his advisory role for the center causes no more bias on smoking than his far more active consulting work for the government, including the EPA, which is hoping for a favorable review from the panel.
"It's not that I'm a tool of industry," said Lippmann, professor of environmental medicine at New York University Medical Center. "I'm a bigger tool of government. I've been working for the EPA longer. I have more to lose by offending the EPA than industry."
Among its research projects, the center has awarded $305,000 in grants to Delbert Eatough, a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University, who was chosen as one of the passive smoking consultants. The money funds research into indoor air quality of aircraft and the chemical composition of environmental tobacco smoke.
"If your're really a good researcher," said Eatough, "you look for answers, and the source of funding doesn't influence you. I don't feel biased in any way."
Four scientists on the passive smoking panel, including Woods, review grant proposals for the center. They earn $100 per proposal and receive no more than six proposals yearly, said Eisenberg, adding, "It's preposterous to think you're going to change an opinion by one of these renowned scientists for reviewing a proposal."
But anti-smoking activists charge that such financial ties are significant in the financially starved research community and may jaundice the views of the scientists.
"When someone is looking at a major grant for his university, when someone is sitting on a board which decides who among his peers gets money, that creates pressure," said John F. Banzhaf, III, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health. "Would they be allowed to sit as a judge on a passive smoking case? Obviously not."
The EPA's ethics rules prohibit officials from participating in decisions that "directly and predictably affect the financial interest" of an industry in which they have an employment or finanicial stake.
But in the case of advisory boards, the standard is balanced membership, according to the EPA general counsel's office.
In pursuit of this balance, Barnes said, he initially vetoed the participation of David Burns, associate professor of medicine at the University of California's San Diego Medical Center, who is known as an outspoken opponent of smoking. The Tobacco Institute strenuously opposed Burns, Barnes said.
"The question raised in my mind was if a person is viewed as a champion of a cause, does that make him a good participant on a panel that is supposed to be balanced?" he said.
But after public complaints by anti-smoking groups that the panel was being stacked in favor of tobacco interests, Barnes decided to include Burns, who was the editor of the surgeon general's reports on smoking and who said in an interview that the lasting integrity of those reports disproves charges that he is biased.
The appointment of Burns and two other consultants whom the Tobacco Institute claims were recommended by anti-smoking groups prompted charges of bias by the institute and Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), who counts tobacco interests as among his constitutents.
Asserting that Burns is a "committed anti-smoking activist," institute spokesman Brennan Dawson said that "not a single member of this panel has even taken an advocacy position that the tobacco industry has agreed to."
Barnes said that while he is convinced the panel is free of scientific favoritism, he is concerned about the public perception of conflicts of interest -- a problem he hopes will be dispelled by public disclosure when the panel meets in December.
According to Flaak, who was directly responsible for putting together the group, the best guarantee of open-mindedness is peer pressure.
"We like to think of this as the intellectual marketplace," he said. "This is a situation of experts sitting on a panel of peers who are knowledgable in these issues. They're hurting themselves professionally if they don't call it the way it is."