Rep. Henry Waxman's Views on S&T Advisors in Policy Making

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Publication date: 
9 August 2004

The National Academies of Sciences Committee on Ensuring the Best Science & Technology Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Appointments received testimony from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) (see FYI #106). Below are the prepared comments of Rep. Waxman. See FYI #107 for Rep. Ehlers' remarks.

"Thank you for the invitation to come here today. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the National Academy of Sciences to policymakers like me - and indeed to the entire nation. When political conflict surrounds a scientific issue, we need to hear an independent and expert view of the evidence. Your work reviewing and clarifying data on such complex issues as vaccine safety, nursing home standards, and the science of climate change has been enormously important.

"I appreciate the opportunity today to discuss with you how to ensure excellence in advisory committee appointments.

I was first elected to Congress in 1974 - just two years after the passage of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Act rested upon a key premise: the best scientific advice is essential to the development of the most effective policies for the public.

"For nearly 30 years, this premise was widely accepted by both Democratic and Republican Administrations. But it is not the rule in Washington anymore.

"The present Administration has a disturbing pattern of treating advisory committee appointments as politics by any other means. Nationally renowned experts have been dropped from panels without explanation, or after flunking ideological litmus tests. New advisors have been hand picked by political appointees despite having scant scientific credentials. The Administration has even asserted political control for the first time over which scientists are permitted to advise the World Health Organization.

"The Administration s defenders dismiss these accusations as politically motivated or, if confronted with specific details, aberrations. But the frequency of the reports and the intensity of the response of the scientific community - including editorials in major scientific and medical journals - indicate that something more systematic is going on.

"On issue after issue, this Administration seems to start with the policies it is planning to pursue, and then seek advice that justifies these predetermined choices. We have seen an inversion of the relationship between science and politics. Rather than scientific experts pointing the way to good policy, politics appears to be dictating the choice of experts and what they say.

"This pattern is wrong and dangerous. It puts [us] at risk of failing to address key problems facing our country. It also risks the faith of the American people in the ability of science to point the way to solutions.

"This Administration s record also complicates matters for your committee: You are being asked to provide advice on scientific excellence at a time when the White House may not have a strong inclination to pursue it.

"This means the committee will need to go further than usual in your approach to promoting scientific excellence. As you have done in the past, you should advise the Administration on how to find the best possible scientific experts.

"But you should also advise Congress and the public on how to intervene when an Administration is corrupting the advisory process to advance a narrow political or ideological agenda.

"Let me make three specific suggestions.

"First, the Committee should consider making a statement affirming the importance of integrity in the scientific advisory committee system. There should be no question that appointments should be made on the basis of scientific expertise and not politics. There should be no role whatsoever for ideological or partisan litmus tests.

"Second, the Committee should consider endorsing much broader transparency in advisory committee appointments. Under FACA, agencies are not required to reveal information on conflict-of-interest to the public. By contrast, the system adopted by the National Academy of Sciences for its committee members requires public disclosure of conflict of interest as well as a comment period. With more transparency, egregious appointments would be less likely to stand.

"Third, the Committee should consider the conditions that would justify forming an independent body to evaluate the quality of scientific appointments. This might take the form of an independent commission. If problems are found, the censure of the scientific community could be brought to bear on the Administration.

"Thank you for inviting me here today and considering these suggestions. In these times, the role of the National Academy of Sciences in providing nonpartisan scientific expertise is more critical than ever. I look forward to our discussion today."