Team effort. New National Academies' report suggests how to make government service more attractive to scientists.

Advice on Science Advising: Keep It Straight

A panel of the U.S. National Academies has taken a political hot potato, slathered rhetoric over it, and produced a report that allows people on all sides of the contentious issue to claim victory. Unfortunately, the report's Rorschach-like quality may also lessen its impact.

The hot potato is the Bush Administration's practice of asking some appointees to scientific advisory panels about their political affiliations, voting records, and stance on issues within the panel's purview, leading to criticism in the media and from several watchdog groups. The response from White House and various agency officials has ranged from attacks on the critics' credibility to a vigorous defense of the practice to ensure a balance of views.

Yesterday, a panel convened by the Academy's Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) weighed in on that debate. "Persons nominated to provide [scientific or technical] expertise should be selected on the basis of their scientific knowledge and credentials," declares the report. "It is inappropriate to ask them to provide nonrelevant information, such as [their] voting record, party affiliation, or position on particular policies." Such information, says panel chair John Porter, a former Republican congressman turned Washington lobbyist, is no more appropriate than asking scientists about "their height or hair color."

Porter emphasized that the committee did not investigate specific allegations, nor was its advice focused on the current Administration. And on closer inspection, the report's seemingly clear message to the White House starts to blur. The report only deals with scientists on advisory panels, notes committee member Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He said it might be appropriate to ask questions eliciting political views of other members of an advisory panel, such as those selected to represent relevant special interests (patient advocates, environmentalists, companies, ethicists, and the like). It would also be reasonable, he notes, for an agency to query members of panels dealing with sensitive topics, such as testing drugs on children or disposing of low-level nuclear waste, to make sure that all views were represented.

Presidential science adviser John Marburger praises the report and says that COSEPUP "has done a great service" in analyzing the topic. Although he agrees with the report that asking scientists how they voted "is not appropriate," he doesn't see a need to change the Administration's methods. "The law requires that these committees be balanced, and you can't tell if they are balanced without asking questions."

The report's other recommendations echo a 2000 COSEPUP report in calling for a streamlining of background checks and a swifter approval process in an attempt to prevent prominent scientists from declining government service.

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