The Bush administration has ordered that government scientists must be approved by a senior political appointee before they can participate in meetings convened by the World Health Organization, the leading international health and science agency.
A top official from the Health and Human Services Department in April asked the WHO to begin routing requests for participation in its meetings to the department’s secretary for review, rather than directly invite individual scientists, as has long been the case.
Officials at the WHO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, have refused to implement the request, saying it could compromise the independence of international scientific deliberations. Denis G. Aitken, WHO assistant director-general, said Friday that he had been negotiating with Washington in an effort to reach a compromise.
The request is the latest instance in which the Bush administration has been accused of allowing politics to intrude into once-sacrosanct areas of scientific deliberation. It has been criticized for replacing highly regarded scientists with industry and political allies on advisory panels. A biologist who was at odds with the administration’s position on stem-cell research was dismissed from a presidential advisory commission. This year, 60 prominent scientists accused the administration of “misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes.”
The president’s science advisor, Dr. John Marburger, has called the accusations “wrong and misleading, inaccurate.”
The newest action has drawn fresh criticism, however, as the request has circulated among scientists.
“I do not feel this is an appropriate or constructive thing to do,” said Dr. D.A. Henderson, an epidemiologist who ran the Bush administration’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and now acts as an official advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. “In the scientific world, we have a generally open process. We deal with science as science. I am unaware of such clearance ever having been required before.”
Henderson worked for the WHO for 11 years directing its smallpox eradication program. He said he could not recall having to go through government bureaucrats to invite scientists to participate in expert panels, except in the case of small Eastern European countries. In 2002, Henderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was praised by Bush as “a great general in mankind’s war against disease.”
A few scientists have been worried about the department’s vetting demand since April, but concerns heightened this week when Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) complained in a letter to Thompson. “The new policy ... politicizes the process of providing the expert advice of U.S. scientists to the international community,” Waxman wrote.
Thompson’s spokesman, Tony Jewell, called Waxman’s criticism “seriously misguided.”
“No one knows better than HHS who the experts are and who can provide the most up-to-date and expert advice,” Jewell said. “The World Health Organization does not know the best people to talk to, but HHS knows. If anyone thinks politics will interfere with Secretary Thompson’s commitment to improve health in every corner of the world, they are sadly mistaken.”
The WHO, founded in 1947, is the United Nations agency dedicated to health. It is governed by 192 member states and conducts forums, recommends international health and safety standards and draws leading scientists from around the world to expert panels that review the latest literature on chemical, biological, industrial and environmental threats.
The organization traditionally insists on picking experts to sit on official scientific review panels.
“It’s an important issue for us,” Aitken said. “We do need independent science. If we want government positions, we have government meetings. We have many, many of these government assemblies, but they address a separate set of concerns” than the scientific gatherings.
Scientists who attend the meetings are reminded that they are invited to offer their scientific views, not to represent their government or financial interests.
The letter to Aitken declaring the new vetting policy was signed by William R. Steiger, special assistant to Thompson. He came to Washington with Thompson from Wisconsin, and is the son of a congressman and the godson of former President George H.W. Bush.
“Except under very limited circumstances, U.S. government experts do not and cannot participate in WHO consultations in their individual capacity,” Steiger wrote. Civil service and other regulations “require HHS experts to serve as representatives of the U.S. government at all times and advocate U.S. government policies.”
The letter asserts that “the current practice in which the WHO invites specific HHS officials by name to serve in these capacities has not always resulted in the most appropriate selections.”
The letter provided no specifics. But WHO panels sometimes have disagreed with positions taken by the administration. A WHO panel met in Lyons, France, this month and declared formaldehyde a known carcinogen -- relying on studies that Bush administration political appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency had rejected as inconclusive.
Voting members of the panel included scientists from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who had been authors of the studies.
Several leading scientists said the new policy would undermine scientific deliberations.
“This is really tampering with a process that has worked very well,” said Linda Rosenstock, the dean of the UCLA School of Public Health who directed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health under President Clinton. “To have this micromanaged at the HHS departmental level raises the specter that political considerations rather than scientific considerations will determine who is allowed to go” to the world’s most important scientific meetings.
Rosenstock said that some WHO divisions -- including the one reviewing cancer threats -- have become targets of industry groups. “There is real concern that science could be trumped by politics and vested interests.”
For Waxman, a frequent critic of the administration, the department’s letter to the WHO is part of a pattern of mixing politics with science -- and one he contends diminishes U.S. stature internationally.
Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.