The National Academy of Sciences yesterday waded into the murky world of whether -- or how much -- politics and point of view should be considered in the appointment of scientists to federal advisory committees.
The advisory committee system is a vast and largely invisible tool employed by nearly every agency of the government. Last year, according to the General Services Administration, there were 976 federal and 51 presidential advisory committees, which had 62,106 members and held nearly 7,000 meetings. Running them -- and paying for their 1,500 staff workers -- cost more than $280 million.
About 200 of the advisory committees are devoted to considering scientific and technical issues. In recent years, the Bush administration has been accused of considering moral and political views, and not just scientific expertise, in making appointments to some of those panels. Some groups have also claimed that many more appointees have potential conflicts of interest than in the past.
The NAS panel studying the issue is made up primarily of scientists who have served in the federal government and is chaired by former Illinois congressman John Edward Porter (R). It will consider whether there are barriers to getting good scientists to serve on committees or take full-time government jobs, and what principles should be observed in selecting researchers, engineers and medical clinicians for committees.
This is the third time the academy has studied the appointment of scientists to government service, looking at such issues as salary incentives, financial disclosure requirements and restrictions on post-government employment. But neither of the two previous reports, in 1992 and 2000, addressed membership on scientific advisory panels, which have been the subject of controversies at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration.
In a day-long session yesterday, the NAS committee heard from representatives of numerous special interest or activist science groups and two congressmen. Most bewailed what they considered the unwarranted intrusion of politics into discussions of scientific evidence. But there was very little discussion about how a person's point of view and experience can color the interpretation or use of scientific facts.
"There is a huge elephant sitting in the middle of the room -- the mounting concern of the scientific community about the Bush administration's suppression and distortion of scientific analyses, and its politicization of appointments," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has taken many left-of-center stands. "This behavior is creating a major new obstacle to the federal government's recruitment and retention of senior scientific talent."
Kirsten Moore, president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which supports "full reproductive freedom" for women, told the panel that "committee members who do not share the administration's ideologies have found themselves removed . . . often replaced by less experienced or non-scientists."
Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who has a doctorate in physics, said that in appointing members to advisory committees "a single, guiding principle should be applied -- select the most qualified person for the job." In the case of presidential appointments, however, he said "it is important that the scientist be in tune with the philosophy of the appointing president."
Asked by Porter whether he thought it was acceptable to ask about party affiliation or recent presidential voting when considering a candidate for a science advisory committee, Ehlers answered: "I think it's an appropriate question. I don't think scientists should consider themselves a privileged class -- that politics is for everyone else and not for them."
He also said that a question about the morality of abortion "is a question that is very pertinent to some committees' work."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who appeared with Ehlers, said interviewers of candidates for advisory panels "ought not to ask what party you're in, what your views on abortion are, whether you voted for the president. . . . I think this committee should spell that out."