CHICAGO, May 11 /PRNewswire/ — The following was released today by Dr. Samuel S. Epstein:
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, the President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Bruce Alberts, and an unheralded group of a dozen other presidents of national science academies, quietly gathered behind the scenes to propose the creation of an International Academy Council (IAC) as a global science advisory board. The object of the IAC, expected to be formalized this month, is to provide "impartial scientific advice" to governments and international organizations on issues such as genetic engineering, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity. While most would agree with Alberts "that the world needs much more advice from scientists," there are serious questions on reliance of advice from an NAS-modeled IAC.
Through its huge think tank, the National Research Council (NRC) chaired by Alberts with a full-time staff of 1000 and a $200 million budget, the NAS conducts studies and prepares about 200 reports annually, largely under contract to federal agencies. However, in flagrant violation of governmental openness rules (the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act) which Alberts still vehemently opposes, NRC committees and panels meet secretly in closed sessions, fail to disclose their minutes and conflict of interest statements, and fail to require that their membership reflects balanced representation of divergent interests and viewpoints. Illustrative is the conduct of the NRC committee on "Comparative Toxicity of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens" which issued the 1996 report on "Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet." This report trivialized concerns on cancer risks to infants and children from food contaminated with carcinogenic pesticides, as these were alleged to "occur at levels far too low to have any adverse effects on health." Acting on behalf of an ad hoc coalition of about 100 leading independent experts in public health and cancer prevention, and representatives of a wide range of labor and citizen groups, one of us (SSE) warned Alberts that this committee was grossly unbalanced and "disproportionately weighted with industry consultants;" it should further be noted that no pediatrician was invited to serve. Alberts responded admitting "that some of the committee members have performed some consulting for industry," but dismissed these concerns as "the same members have also advised or consulted for regulatory agencies." Other concerns were expressed that the composition of the NRC Committee could "be used to discredit or undermine" the previous NRC report on "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," which explicitly warned of cancer risks to children.
A more blatant conflict of interest is evidenced by the composition of the March, 1999 NRC biotechnology panel with its disproportionate representation of experts directly linked to the industry. This conflict was compounded by the subsequent discovery of a revolving-door relationship between the industry and NRC. Unknown to the panel, its executive director Dr. Michael Phillips was secretly negotiating for a senior position in the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He joined the industry some 3 months later.
As federal support is now beginning to shrink, the NAS plans to increase funding from non-federal sources, which currently account for some 15% of its budget. The NAS is also planning to extend its influence to major national policy concerns. However characteristic of his penchant for secrecy, Alberts has refused to release a pending report recommending reorganization of NAS policies and procedures.
Evaluation of global concerns, particularly in public health and environmental integrity, should not be entrusted to a non-transparent and unaccountable cabal of self-appointed experts, such as the proposed IAC, whose views may reflect special interests rather than the public. Instead, highly qualified independent scientists acceptable to or working with non-governmental organizations (NGO's) should play a major role in an international science advisory body, such as the recently proposed World Academy of Science in Society, The Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST), or the group of some 300 "World Scientists."
Source: Cancer Prevention Coalition
Contact: Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., Professor of Environmental Medicine atthe University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago, and Chairman ofthe Cancer Prevention Coalition, 312-996-2297; endorsed by Edward Goldsmith,M.A., of The Ecologist, Richmond, Surrey, U.K., 011-44-181-332-6963, and MaeWan Ho, Ph.D., of the Department of Biology, The Open University, MiltonKeynes, U.K., 011-44-1908-653-113