Fed Agencies Accused of Hiring Biased Experts for Studies
(CNSNews.com) - A liberal-funded consumer advocacy group is alleging that government agencies created to provide independent, science-based advice to Congress and the president are instead offering slanted information to appease the industries being investigated.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has targeted the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a new report, accusing those agencies of appointing "biased scientists" who were funded by companies with a vested interest in the outcome of the research. These conflicts of interests, the CSPI alleges, are being hidden from the public.
However, the deputy commissioner of the FDA, who also participated in a panel discussion this week at the National Press Club, said it was essential to have scientists with industry expertise, and an environmental law expert called the CSPI criticism of the government agency scientists a "witch hunt."
The CSPI investigated the backgrounds of 320 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences who were spread out over 21 committees. One hundred thirty-six of the scientists had some ties to industry or some conflict of interest and 56 had direct financial ties to companies involved in the NAS studies, according to the CSPI.
The National Academy of Sciences was also accused of promoting a culture of bias in its appointment of 66 "pro-industry" scientists and its appointment of only nine scientists who had worked for or been connected with environmental or public interest groups.
David Michaels, a George Washington University professor, voiced concern about the growing power of industry over science, claiming that the process of approving medication, food, or national policies based on the research of these "biased" scientists is dangerous.
"The work of these experts has the same relationship to science as Arthur Andersen's work for Enron had to the government," said Michaels. "These are smart people with impressive skills that help misbehaving companies usurp the law.
"They are paid to advance a certain outcome," he added.
CSPI cited examples like the 1980 report released by the NAS Food and Nutrition Board, which told Americans that they did not need to reduce their intake of cholesterol and saturated fat, even though concern was elevating about a link between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. It was found later that three of the members who had supported the policy statement were food company officials and two others had served as consultants to egg producers, according to CSPI.
Another example cited in the CSPI report was the "State Practices in Setting Mobile Source Emissions Standards" panel. According to the CSPI, four of the 11 members had direct financial ties to oil or vehicle industries. Ten of the 11 scientists who reviewed the "Department of Energy's Carbon Sequestration Program" had ties to carbon-emitting industries, the CSPI reported.
A Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report from this month stated that of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to its survey, nearly one-fifth (18.4 percent) said they had been asked for non-scientific reasons "to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or my conclusions in a FDA scientific document."
Forty percent of respondents said they feared retaliation for voicing safety concerns in public, while 47 percent said they thought the "FDA routinely provides complete and accurate information to the public."
Debate on the subject was sparked when FDA scientists complained that their findings on the painkilling drug Vioxx, manufactured by Merck Co., were dismissed. Vioxx was later taken off the market after being linked to increasing cardiovascular problems.
Michaels suggested that any scientists who have worked for or received money from an industry within the past five years should be barred from voting on panels related to that industry because they cannot be "impartial." He also demanded that all conflicts of interest be disclosed to the public.
The CSPI's website lists as its first funding source for Fiscal Year 2004 the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation. The Foundation dispenses grants to leftist environmental and public policy groups and gave the CSPI $225,000 between 1990 and 2002, according to the website ActivistCash.com.
Scott Gottlieb, M.D., deputy commissioner of the FDA, said it is essential that scientists with ties to certain industries serve on panels because their experience and familiarity with the product under question makes them "experts."
He argued that it would be impossible to keep these scientists off panels because they are chosen one to four years in advance and they "do not know what issues will arise." Gottlieb also said this kind of "a priori" exclusion of "expertise scientists" would dramatically decrease the amount of qualified scientists available.
Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), which would prohibit the FDA from appointing scientists with conflicts of interest to advisory panels passed the House in May.
Frederick Anderson, attorney and former head of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute, said CSPI is "just wrong" in their accusations and that this type of law would cause severe damage to the scientific community.
"It resembles a witch hunt," Anderson said. "To me this report is perhaps the journalistic equivalent claiming to achieve cold fusion."