U.S. Science Advisory Panels Need Greater Transparency, Report Says

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U.S. government agencies recruiting scientists and other experts to serve on advisory panels should be asking for more detailed disclosures of potential conflicts of interest. That's just one of the take-home messages from a report released today by The Keystone Center, a Colorado-based think tank.

More than 1000 federal advisory committees "are part of the unseen government," but they can play a big role in establishing policy and writing regulations, Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and a contributor to the report, said today in a conference call with reporters. The panels, which are composed of volunteers, are asked to weigh in on a wide range of issues, from approving new drugs to reviewing environmental regulations. Some committees have become embroiled in high-profile controversies, however, with critics charging that panel members have hidden financial conflicts or industry ties, or have ignored important studies in reaching their conclusions.

"The proliferation of such charges—whether warranted or not—is a growing problem for both scientists and policymakers, and for the public at large," today's report concludes. "Over time, such charges can undermine support for scientific research and government decisions, as well as leave the public confused and dispirited."

To see if agencies could avoid such turmoil, The Keystone Center organized the Research Integrity Roundtable to look for ways to improve the use of science in regulatory decisions. Peter Adler, a past president of the center, said the Roundtable, which includes specialists from industry, public interest groups, and government agencies, focused on four questions:

  • How should panels be composed and the qualifications of prospective advisory panelists vetted?
  • How should concerns about biases and conflicts of interest of advisory panelists be handled?
  • Which studies should agencies review when examining the scientific literature related to a regulatory policy issue?
  • How should contending views regarding the relevance of particular scientific results to a regulatory issue and the credibility of those results be addressed?

The answers are spelled out in a 51-page report. Some echo the conclusions of earlier reports. The new report details how agencies could improve the appointment and operation of advisory committees, and organize better "systemic review[s]" of the science underpinning particular policies and regulations.

Among other actions, the report recommends that agencies adopt uniform disclosure rules that, in some cases, are broader and more detailed than those currently in use. Officials should ask advisory panel candidates to detail their incomes over the previous 3 years, "including compensated expert testimony," and reveal any investments worth more than $1000. Candidates should also disclose any "gifts or free services" worth more than $100 that they received in the previous year, whether they are currently looking for a job, and "all support from grants, cooperative agreements, cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs), contracts, and all currently pending applications or proposals for such support." They should also list "relevant" professional activities, such as giving talks or serving on boards, during at least the previous 5 years.

"The Roundtable's overall goal is to increase the level of transparency so there is more public information about the members of scientific advisory committees," the report states. "At the same time, a reasonable balance must be established between transparency and privacy," and officials will need to assess whether the changes are, over time, making it harder to attract qualified candidates.

The report also outlines "best practices" for panels seeking to systematically review the science supporting specific government actions. Such reviews "often come under scrutiny," the report notes, with critics often focusing not on conflicts or biases, but on the "design, conduct, and quality of the scientific assessment." To head off conflict, officials need to ensure that the process is transparent, the Roundtable says. "The entity carrying out the review should make it clear, as early in the process as possible, how studies will be selected, analyzed, and weighed."

"Many reviews are [already] done well," said Roundtable member Richard Becker, a senior toxicologist with the American Chemistry Council, an industry-backed group that helped fund the study. "But more transparency would enhance credibility."

"The overarching notion behind all the recommendations in this report is that the regulatory process is better when there is more consistent and greater transparency in selecting panels, and when there is consistent, transparent, and systematic review and evaluation of the scientific literature," the report concludes. "Transparency does need to be weighed against other values—for example, not unduly burdening advisory committee members or dissuading experts from participating—but, in general, transparency not only can eliminate suspicion and innuendo, but also forces participants in the regulatory process to be more explicit and clear in their own thinking."

Some agencies have already implemented the Roundtable's ideas, its authors say. And others "don't have to wait for Congress to act," Grifo says. "There are important actions they can take right away." Ultimately, however, it would be helpful to have Congress write any reforms into law, she says, because "anything the agencies do on their own is subject to political changes" in the White House.