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Bush accused of stacking committees

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Medical Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- A panel of scientists Thursday accused the Bush administration of loading scientific advisory panels with members who are supportive of the administration's agenda but who might have questionable scientific expertise.

"We have seen evidence this is occurring" in committees for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other advisory committees, said Lynn Goldman, who served as assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Prevention, Pesticide and toxic substances from 1993 to 1998.

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"I suspect if we took a strong look across the government we would see much, much more of it," said Goldman, who is now with Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health.

"The administration is putting in people that assures they hear what they want to hear," said David Michaels, assistant energy secretary for environment, safety and health from 1998-2001 and now a research professor at George Washington University.

The issue is crucial because scientific advisory panels often are called on to address matters that affect the population at large, Goldman said. This includes everything from determining safe levels of chemicals in drinking water to removing lead from gasoline.

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"Everyday our lives are impacted in a very important and serious way by the use of the best science available in decision-making," she said.

In one instance, the scientists said, David Hagar, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was named as a nominee to chair the Food and Drug Administration's reproductive health drugs advisory committee that approved the abortion drug RU-486 two years ago.

Hagar, however, has said abortion drugs are dangerous to women's health, and his affiliations with various religious movements are well known and "the concern is that he will allow his religious views to overcome scientific judgment," Michaels said.

In another instance, the Bush administration was accused of loading a CDC advisory committee, which is considering lowering the acceptable levels of lead in the blood, with members who hold views favorable to the lead industry and who oppose lowering the levels.

The scientists also said they had heard of instances were committee nominees were asked directly about their political beliefs and views on abortion.

"That is unheard of" as part of the selection process for serving on a scientific committee, Michaels said.

The allegations came as the administration grappled with a Washington Post article alleging one of Bush's nominees to the AIDS Advisory Commission, Jerry Thacker, a Christian activist and a staff member at Bob Jones University, had called the disease "the gay plague."

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White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied Thacker had been selected for the commission but said Bush does not condone Thacker's views on AIDS. Thacker withdrew his name for consideration Thursday.

Responding to the scientists' allegations, White House spokesman Ken Lasaius said, "The fact is when the president makes appointments he makes them on the basis of putting the best qualified person into a position."

Lasaius declined to comment on whether nominees were asked about their political beliefs or views on abortions. "We simply don't talk about the personnel selection process," he told United Press International.

Most decisions on nominees to scientific advisory boards are made by the Cabinet secretary of the agency the committee answers to, Lasaius said. Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees most of the science panels, did not return phone calls from UPI.

Although Michaels said he does not think there is a danger any of these committees will come to conclusions outside the boundaries of good science, he is concerned the Bush-appointed members will force the committees to reach a stalemate on issues, such as abortion drugs and safe levels of lead, and thus delay regulations on them. He accused the Bush administration of "manufacturing uncertainty."

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The scientists said they did not object to differing opinions being represented on the panels but they did not want to see the panels stacked with members with vested financial interests in the outcomes of the committees' decisions.

"We don't want people to be there because they've made a promise they're going to go a certain way no matter what the science is," Goldman said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plan to investigate the allegations. Waxman is "very, very concerned about what appears to be a trend with this administration on advisory panels and information on fact sheets," his spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot told UPI.

Waxman "definitely will try to do some oversight" and "try to find out how the advisory boards are being stacked and if so try to make sure that there's public attention to that," she added.

"Senator Kennedy is increasingly concerned about the nominees that are being appointed to these advisory boards as well as efforts to interfere with the peer review process," his spokesman Jim Manley told UPI.

Kennedy "intends to hold a forum on this issue in early February ... to hear from scientists and other experts concerned about this administration's procedures ... and willingness to unduly influence the appointment process," Manley said.

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In December, Waxman sent a letter to the EPA accusing the agency of kowtowing to the pesticide industry and removing "three of the nation's leading experts on the effects of pesticides on children (including Goldman) ... from speaking" at an EPA-funded conference after industry representatives suggested the experts were biased against pesticides.

Waxman requested the EPA explain its actions and re-invite the three experts. "The administration should not try to rig the outcome of a scientific process to match its political agenda," Waxman said in the letter.

Last year, Waxman had wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson objecting to information removed from Web sites of the National Institutes of Health and the CDC. The NIH had removed fact sheets saying there was no scientific link between abortions and breast cancer and the CDC had removed a fact sheet that contained information about the efficacy and usefulness of condoms.

The information was restored after Waxman's letter but it was "altered against the science" and suggested there was a risk of breast cancer due to abortions, Lightfoot said.

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