Bush & Science

A slanting of science
2 July 2004, Boston Globe Editorial

For years the World Health Organization has enlisted US government scientists to attend WHO meetings or serve on its panels without first getting the approval of the federal government. That open relationship between the UN organization and scientists ended in April, however, when the Bush administration decreed that WHO must first clear appointees with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The administration defends this as a way to ensure that the WHO gets the best scientist to represent the US government. In the past, WHO has been free to pick the best scientist, period. Critics of the new procedure, such as Congressman Henry Waxman of California, fear it will give the Bush administration the opportunity to blackball any scientists who don't toe the administration line on controversial health issues. The administration should rescind the policy before it seriously interferes with the freedom of all government scientists to offer WHO their expertise.

In charge of the new policy will be William Steiger Jr., a special assistant to Tommy Thompson, the HHS secretary, and the son of a former Wisconsin congressman. Steiger, a godson of former President George H.W. Bush, sent WHO a letter establishing the new vetting policy in April. "Except under very limited circumstances," Steiger wrote, "US government experts do not and cannot participate in WHO consultations in their individual capacity." He said regulations "require HHS experts to serve as representatives of the US government at all times and advocate US government policies." An HHS spokesman said other international organizations will have to follow the same procedure.

The new policy is a textbook example of what the Union of Concerned Scientists complained about in a report issued in February on the politicization of science by the Bush administration. At that time, 60 of the nation's top scientists said the administration had systematically suppressed or misrepresented science. They called on Congress to hold investigative hearings.

The head of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Kevin Knobloch, called the new policy "more of the same intervention that wasn't there before." The administration's determination to vet scientists for international panels is sadly reminiscent of the workings of Eastern European countries, a point made in a Los Angeles Times interview by Dr. D.A. Henderson, an epidemiologist and former WHO official who ran the Office of Public Health Preparedness for the Bush administration and is now an adviser to Thompson. Henderson said the new approach is not "appropriate or constructive." Thompson should take his adviser's advice and let the WHO and scientists cooperate without the government butting in.

U.S. cuts 28 CDC experts at forum
25 June 2004, Jeff Nesmith, Cox Washington Bureau

Washington - The Bush administration has forced 28 researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cancel presentations at an international HIV/AIDS conference next month, Democratic members of Congress charged Thursday.

A spokesman for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the Atlanta-based center had overbooked the conference in violation of new restrictions on travel by HHS employees.

Twenty other officials from the CDC, which is part of HHS, will attend, along with 30 from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and other HHS agencies.

The CDC employees were scheduled to present the results of 37 studies of various aspects of the AIDS epidemic at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, said Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

''By grounding these experts, you are keeping them from learning from their peers across the world, and you are depriving the world of the scientific leadership of the United States,'' Waxman and Slaughter said in a letter to Thompson.

Areas of research the two members of Congress said will be ''shortchanged'' include how to prevent HIV infections, how to monitor drug resistance and how to reduce life-threatening bacterial infections among AIDS victims.

A spokeswoman for Waxman released a list of 40 papers that the United States had to withdraw from the conference. CDC scientists were listed as authors of 37.

Bill Pierce, a spokesman for Thompson, said the department had been discussing cutting back on the number of scientists who attend international conferences.

''We have been sending hundreds of people to conferences all over the world at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayers,'' Pierce said. ''We are cutting back on that, and this is just another conference in that process.''

Pierce said the CDC had known since last year that it could send only 20 representatives to the conference. He said that conference telephone calls and other ways of communicating, including e-mail, could be used to get scientific information about AIDS spread around the world.

''The United States will be well represented at this meeting,'' Pierce said.

''Tony Fauci and Ron Valdiserri will be going and they can hold their own with anybody in the world,'' he added, referring to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Ronald Valdiserri, deputy director of CDC's National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention.

Waxman and Slaughter noted in their letter that Pierce has already denied that the decision to restrict U.S. participation in the AIDS conference was an ''act of retribution'' by Thompson, who was booed by AIDS activists at the 14th international conference in Barcelona last year.

A spokeswoman for CDC would not comment on the matter Thursday night.


AIDS - Ideology Trumps Science

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