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Panel politics unresolved

Concerns continue over US advisory panels' new make-up.

By | December 30, 2002

As the year draws to a close, Bush administration officials have offered little in response to protests from a variety of quarters over the apparent politicization of scientific advisory panel appointments. Since the summer, Democratic lawmakers, science and health advocacy groups and displaced advisors themselves have been questioning the elimination of active advisory panels and charging that others are being stacked with industry advocates and unqualified scientists chosen for their political leanings.

"I am deeply worried that a pattern of political interference with appointments to scientific advisory bodies will undermine the credibility and evenhandedness of scientific advice to the Congress and the American people," wrote Thomas Murray, president of bioethics think tank The Hastings Center, on December 12, to Mark McClellan, newly-named commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Murray had learned earlier in the week that he would be dropped from the Biological Response Modifiers Advisory Committee (BRMAC), a body that gives the FDA guidance on the science of stem cell research, among other topics.

FDA officials did not respond to The Scientist's repeated requests for comment on the Murray matter, or on the ongoing accusations that a political "litmus test" had replaced scientific credentials in the process of screening candidates for panel appointments.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) chief, Tommy Thompson did reply to a letter of protest sent in October by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) and Hillary Clinton (D-New York). In his letter to both senators, Thompson denied the use of "litmus tests" and insisted, "We will continue to recruit the best scientific minds to serve." However, Kennedy aide Jim Manley told The Scientist, "Secretary Thompson's response has been unsatisfactory. We continue to get complaints from scientists."

Ensuring "diversity" of viewpoints has been the Bush Administration's standing defense of its appointments to FDA advisory panels, as well as to committees working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. In the fall, Claude Allen, a top aide to Thompson, blamed election-season politics for the uproar. But the election came and went and critics like Anthony Robbins say the issue is as hot as ever.

"This is not going to go away. This is an offense to the scientific community," said Robbins, chair of the department of family medicine and community health at Tufts University.

A December 17th letter signed by Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and other groups accused the CDC of playing politics with panels that give scientific advice on environmental health and childhood lead poisoning. CSPI and other signatories said the CDC's lack of a conflict-of-interest policy, combined with appointments of scientists with financial ties to industry, violated federal law for scientific panel appointments.

Critics also charge that the appointment process, which was once open and non-partisan, is now mysterious and politicized.

Murray told The Scientist that two days before he wrote his letter to McClellan, he had received a call from an FDA scientist informing him that he would no longer be serving on the BRMAC. The FDA office responsible for processing appointments had refused to process Murray's paperwork, and refused to explain why.

Linda Arey Skladany, a former lobbyist and spokesperson for President Ronald Reagan, was given responsibility for overseeing FDA's Advisory Committee Oversight and Management Staff in July. Skladany did not respond to The Scientist's requests for an explanation of the process.

"One begins to reflect on all the sins one has committed in one's life," said Murray. He was on President Clinton's bioethics commission, which issued a report that does not agree with the Bush Administration's positions. He was on record as criticizing the Bush Administration's policy on stem cell research announced in August 2001, which limits use of stem cell lines in a manner that many scientists say is unworkable.

But all of this was the case early in 2002, when Murray was asked to serve on the BRMAC, and in May, when he attended his first two-day session. Long before the December 10 phone call, Murray had established a reputation as a centrist on stem cell research, in many appearances before Congress, editorial advisory board appointments and activities with National Institutes of Health panels and other groups studying the ethics of gene therapy.

"The irony is that I work at a place known as non-partisan. I disagree with some of my colleagues, but that intellectual tension is a healthy thing," Murray said. "We are not doing our work well unless we can listen to a broad range of voices."

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