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Last Word

PRESIDENTIAL POLICIES PUT SCIENCE AT RISK

By Rep. Henry Waxman

Historically, the United States government has invested more money and resources in scientific research than any other nation, and federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency have earned global reputations for scientific excellence and integrity.

This record, however, is now in jeopardy. Leading scientists and scientific journals have raised serious complaints about political interference that is eroding the ability of federal agencies to conduct exemplary research and promote public health and security.

One effect has been to stymie research. When President Bush banned the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines in August 2001, he assured scientists that “more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines” already existed and that research on these lines could “lead to breakthrough therapies and cures.” In fact, over two years later, there are fewer than 20 cell lines available to researchers. Leading scientists have said that the president's restrictions are undermining this promising field of research.

The public is being increasingly misled about scientific evidence pertaining to important policy decisions. For example, in aggressively pursuing the technology for intercepting an inbound missile, Bush administration officials testified to Congress that the system would be 90 percent functional in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula by the end of 2004. However, these claims are not considered credible by outside experts. One expert in weapons systems and testing says that the program is “at least a decade” from completion, and the editors of Scientific American have written that “researchers' best guess is that a reliable system is unfeasible.”

In addition, the quality of scientific advice within federal agencies is suffering. The Federal Advisory Committee Act was passed to insure that advisory committees be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented” and “will not be inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority or by any special interest.” Yet recent appointments have been criticized by leading scientists and journals as being driven more by political litmus tests than by scientific credentials. For example, last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) dropped experts on childhood lead poisoning from a key advisory committee at CDC. In their place, HHS added individuals with ties to the lead industry, including one who has testified for industry that a lead level of 70 micrograms per deciliter is safe for a child's brain. This is seven times the maximum level considered safe by the Institute of Medicine.

I have also become increasingly concerned about a pattern of political interference at the National Institutes of Health, the world's largest public funder of medical research. There have been unjustified changes to agency Web sites, ideological litmus tests for advisers, and interference with scientists studying topics that offend fringe conservative groups. In recent weeks, Bush administration officials have pursued a damaging privatization plan over the objections of NIH leaders, and a senior NIH scientist has written that staff morale is at an all-time low.

More on this disturbing pattern can be found at a Web site I have created: www.politicsandscience.org. It is my hope that increased exposure of the administration's behavior will spur a strong response. We must hold our government accountable to the central tenet of science: that the truth can only be found by respecting freedom of inquiry and scientific integrity.

And as a corollary, we should expect our government to recognize a central tenet of policymaking: that more and better evidence makes for better public policy.

 

Rep. Henry Waxman is the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Government Reform. He can be reached at hwaxman@asee.org.

 

 
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