(Part of UPI's Special Report reviewing 2002 and previewing 2003)
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Political decisions this year by the Bush Administration have set the stage for a head-on collision with a group that generally does not get involved in politics -- the nation's scientists.
At issue: whether the administration's claim to be seeking "good science" in several critical issues really is a smokescreen to obscure already valid research results, skew scientific deliberations for political reasons and conceal deliberate inaction.
What seems to be drawing more scientists into the debate are appointments made by Bush officials to key science advisory committees, such as at the Department of Health and Human Services. Such panels are vital to helping policy makers sort out the often conflicting results of the hundreds of complex research studies done each year on health, drugs, the environment and other areas vital to the public's well being.
By law, the panels are supposed to be balanced, but critics charge the administration is trying to stack some of them, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. There, some appointees have been characterized as less qualified than alternative selections and are viewed as likely to oppose additional regulation -- a position the administration supports.
Nominations to other panels have been questioned as well. Panels under scrutiny include the CDC Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. The latter might be called on to review the highly controversial drug, UR-486, which can be used to end an early term pregnancy.
Concerns also were raised about appointments to the Army Science Board when a former consultant said in a letter to Science magazine nominations to the board -- including his -- were being turned down because of suspected Democratic campaign contributions. Another letter in Science said HHS had expanded its political parsing of nominees to include peer-review study sections. These panels recommend who should receive money for research projects.
Spokesmen for the White House and HHS said the criticisms are politically motivated, the appointees are qualified and the strategy is to add balance to the panels.
HHS spokesman William Pierce also took issue with news reports that two scientific panels were set to be disbanded: the HHS Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, which has supported expanded regulation of genetic testing, and the HHS National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee, whose positions on testing embryos did not, according to news reports, fit the administration's desire to extend protections to the unborn and perhaps strengthen efforts against abortion.
"They were never disbanded," Pierce told UPI, adding both committees have new charters and appointments should be made to them soon -- possibly by the end of the year.
At present it is not clear whether the administration actually intended to disband the committees. Without weeks of independent, in-depth research on all the committee members in question, it is not possible to determine if criticism has been warranted or if the administration's actions have constituted politics as usual.
What is telling, however -- and a better guide -- is the reaction of scientists. Who should be more familiar with the work of their colleagues and the appropriateness of the process than the members themselves?
So far, the scientific community is giving clear indications it is worried the process is being rigged. That seems to be why they are speaking out against it.
The American Public Health Association adopted a statement Nov. 12 that said: "APHA has observed with concern recent steps by government officials at the federal level to restructure key federal scientific and public health advisory committees by retiring the committees before their work is completed, removing or failing to reappoint qualified members, and replacing them with less scientifically qualified candidates and candidates with a clear conflict of interest. Such steps suggest an effort to inappropriately influence these committees."
The APHA called for standards to be set by an independent body for all such committees at all levels of government.
"Government officials should re-evaluate the newly reconstituted advisory panels and take steps to address any deficiencies related to the scientific or expert qualifications, balance of perspectives, and financial conflict of interest of their membership," the association recommended.
APHA is just the start. The Society of Toxicology is looking at the APHA policy and considering adopting a similar position of its own, said society President Dr. William F. Greenlee.
"We are very, very concerned about political agendas having entered the peer review process," Greenlee told UPI in an interview.
The Council of Scientific Society Presidents also is taking up the issue.
"I would consider this (approach) a serious breach of the relationship between the science community and the government if it expands in this direction because it does good service to neither," Martin Apple, CSSP's president, told UPI.
CSSP, which comprises the leadership of more than 125 of the nation's top professional science associations, took up discussion of the issue during its board meeting the first week in December.
Debate at CSSP will bring the issue into consideration at societies across the country with thousands of members. Considering the international nature of research and the importance of U.S. standards internationally, the matter likely will draw international attention as well.
The science media also are weighing in as well. In addition to articles on changes in the committees, the journal Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published an editorial against stacking the committees.
The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, stepped into the debate Nov. 12 when it published an editorial against the practice that was co-authored by 10 professors from a half-dozen U.S. universities.
The debate on the politicalization of science is only going to get bigger.
Currently, there is a fight going on at the National Cancer Institute over a Web page by NCI that suggested research was inconclusive on a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer. Anti-abortion activists are asserting there is a link and pushing -- even suing -- to have doctors inform their patients of this.
NCI replaced the Web page with another that said data on a link is "inconsistent," a move a dozen other congressmen then protested in writing. Both sides claim to have the research data on their side. NCI is planning a meeting in 2003 to review this and related issues.
Critics also are sure to be taking aim next year at proposed climate change research.
Amid charges of funding more research as a way to delay any meaningful action, the Bush administration recently trotted out a dozen top officials to ask scientists for help. The scientists are supposed to help them set policy to combat global warming.
While stressing all the uncertainties surrounding the global warming issue, the officials unveiled a draft study plan, which noticeably follows research suggestions made by the National Research Council in its assessment of a 2001 report from the United Nations.
Not so noticeable, however, is any research on the sensitive political question of the future use of fossil fuels -- something suggested by the National Research Council. The plan is due to be released in April.
Beyond the world's climate or U.S. health policy, at stake in these debates are the fundamental values of science itself. Everyone expects politicians to shade the truth and the media often are viewed with a jaded eye.
Scientists, however, have enjoyed a greater trust from the public, which believes its allegiance is to finding facts, not favor. To the degree the science community allows its craft to be bent to the will of politics, they -- and we all -- will lose.