New Pledge Of Allegiance

Like Pamela Kidd, many scientists have come forward with tales of inappropriate, politically motivated questioning by the Bush administration in the appointment process. The February 2004 report Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science, released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), documented several cases in which political litmus tests had been applied by representatives of the Bush administration to candidates for scientific advisory positions.15

One such case involved William R. Miller, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. Miller, who pioneered a leading substance abuse treatment and is the author of more than one hundred articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, stated that his 2002 interview for a slot on a National Institute on Drug

Abuse advisory panel included questions about whether his views were congruent with those held by President Bush and whether he had voted for Bush in 2000. Presumably based on his answers, Miller said, he was denied the appointment.16

In his official response to the UCS report, the Bush administration's science adviser John Marburger called the charges that the administration had used political litmus tests "preposterous." "The UCS asserts that a political litmus test was the reason why Dr. William Miller was denied an appointment on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) advisory panel. This claim is false," Marburger wrote. As he explained, the decision to reject Miller was not "based on any conversations with any members of the Secretary's Office [at the Department of Health and Human Services]."17

Notably, though, the report had never alleged anything about conversations with any particular Bush administration officials, and specifically not "members of the Secretary's Office." Marburger's strenuous denial carefully avoided the key point: he said nothing about the fact that some Bush administration officials had questioned Miller about whom he had voted for.

Since the initial publication of the UCS report in 2004, many more scientists have disclosed their personal experiences with political litmus tests applied by the Bush administration in the appointment process for a wide range of scientific advisory positions. Taken together, their stories suggest a systematic effort to try to empanel only scientists who declare their allegiance to George W. Bush and the Republican Party. The charges, never "preposterous" in the first place, are now so pervasive as to appear indisputable. Yet neither Marburger nor anyone else in the Bush administration has responded to them further.

Consider the experience of Sharon Smith, the chair of the marine biology department at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. She claims that she was summarily rejected for a position on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission—a presidential appointment—after she gave a less-than-enthusiastic answer in response to a question from the White House personnel office about whether she supported President Bush.

Smith, an arctic ecology expert, had been nominated in 2004 to serve on the Arctic Research Commission, which advises both the White

House and Congress on arctic research issues. She says that, when the White House personnel office called to review her credentials, "The first and only question was, 'Do you support the president?'" As Smith put it: "I was dumbfounded. My first response was that I was not supportive of his foreign and economic policies but that I didn't see what that had to do with my being nominated, or with arctic science. After that, there were no other discussions. I realized the conversation was over.

"Forty years of work in ocean science and you're excluded because you can't say 'I totally support the president of the United States'?" Smith asks incredulously. "I've been on advisory committees before, and I've never had this kind of question. I was outraged."18

Further examples of political litmus tests have surfaced from scientists nominated for high-ranking science advisory positions at the National Institutes of Health "council level"; these too merit discussion.

NIH is an enormous family of institutions that serves as steward of medical and behavioral research in the United States. It is divided into some two dozen separate centers and institutes, most of which have a national advisory council or board that serves as the oversight tier of the peer review process—a process upon which the NIH and the entire scientific community relies. Scientists asked to serve on these councils have traditionally been chosen based on their distinguished scientific credentials and technical expertise.

The NIH councils do not set or even recommend policy on behalf of the federal government. Rather, their task is to oversee the process of allocating federal research funds. While their decisions frequently affect the direction of scientific research, this is done based on the merits of proposals submitted and the cumulative expertise of the council members. Because of this vital independent role outside of the policymaking arena, committee heads at NIH have traditionally received wide latitude in determining the scientific expertise needed in their particular area of concern.

It is also worth noting that the law establishing these councils is very clear in its intention to create scientific, not political or policymaking bodies. According to the guidelines published by the Office of Federal Advisory Committee Policy: "The basic criterion for [scientists chosen for] membership on NIH committees is excellence in biomedical and behavioral research. . . . The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), under which NIH committees operate, requires that membership must be fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and the functions to be performed by the advisory committee."19

Under the Bush administration, though, two members appointed to the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research, Richard Myers of Stanford University and George Weinstock of Baylor College of Medicine, testify that they were each subjected to inappropriate questions about their political views by representatives from the White House during their confirmation process.

Myers, a biochemist, could hardly have had a more distinguished scientific career. He currently holds positions as chair of the Department of Genetics at Stanford University and director of Stanford's Human Genome Center. A recognized expert in genome analysis and the study of DNA variation, his research has furthered worldwide scientific understanding of numerous genetic disorders, including Huntington's disease, progressive myoclonus epilepsy, and basal cell carcinoma.

In the spring of 2002, Myers was notified that he had been nominated to serve on the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research, an NIH Council-level position. Shortly thereafter, he says, he received a call from Secretary Tommy Thompson's office at HHS.20 The caller began asking questions about Myers's background and scientific credentials that, he recounts, soon turned increasingly political in nature. First, he recalls, he was asked questions about his view of stem cell research. "I was a little surprised," he says, "given what I know about the nature of the committee's work." (The National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research advises NIH and HHS on genetics, ge-nomic research, training, and programs related to the human genome initiative.) But Myers answered the question candidly. "I told the official that I was in favor of stem cell research. I said that my father has Parkinson's disease and that I would very much like to see a cure. I believe I said it would be a crime in my view if we didn't do that kind of research.

"Then," Myers recalls, "the staffer asked questions that really shocked me. She wanted to know what I thought about President Bush: did I like him, what did I think of the job he was doing." Myers, who describes himself as normally "nonpolitical," objected to the line of questioning. "I said that I thought it was inappropriate to be asked these kinds of questions which led, I think, to an awkward situation for both of us," he says. "She said that she had been told that she needed to ask the questions, and it appeared to me that she was reading from a prepared list. Because of her persistence, I tried to answer in the most nonspecific way possible. I talked about terrorism and the fact that it seemed that the attack of September 11 had brought the country together. But there is no doubt that I felt the questions were an affront and highly inappropriate."

Not long after this interview, Myers was notified that he had been denied the NIH Council position. "I was very depressed," he says. "I really wanted to serve in this capacity. I care deeply about the science, and I'm an expert in this area." Most notably, Myers knew that he had been selected by his NIH colleagues, and so he believed that his rejection must have been because his answers to the political questions posed had been deemed unsatisfactory. Alarmed, he appealed his case directly to Francis Collins, chair of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research and director of the branch of NIH called the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Collins declined to be interviewed about the matter. But, through his office, he confirmed the fact that, learning of the circumstances, he personally intervened on Myers behalf to successfully insist that he be allowed to serve on the NIH Council.21

Nor is Myers's case an anomaly. His colleague George Weinstock, for instance, tells a remarkably similar story. Weinstock, a microbiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, who was among the appointees to the same NIH advisory panel in 2002, says that he too was subjected to questioning about his political views. Weinstock is also an extremely distinguished researcher, a professor in the departments of molecular and human genetics and molecular virology and microbiology as well as co-director of Baylor's Human Genome Sequencing Center. After learning of his nomination, Weinstock says he received a call from someone at HHS. He too was asked a series of questions that he describes as "leading political questions that had nothing to do with my role on the NIH committee."22

Weinstock also reports that the interview included questions about his political views, whether he supported stem cell research, and what he thought of President Bush. "There is no doubt in my mind that these questions represented a political litmus test," he says. He says that while he found the line of questioning disturbing, he chose not to confront the questioner but tried instead "to change the subject. I said things like: 'We live in complicated times.'" As Weinstock puts it, his answers must have been "innocuous enough to be palatable," because he was confirmed by the White House to serve on the NIH Council.

In another instance, Claire Sterk, a current council member at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that she too was subjected to repeated questioning about her political views in three separate calls from a White House staff member. Among the questions she was asked, and refused to answer, was whether she had voted for President George W. Bush.

"I have nothing to hide," Sterk commented. "But I told the questioner that I did not see the connection between his line of questioning and my work on a scientific advisory council. And I refused to answer unless the questioner could tell me that I would have some kind of particular political policy role, which I knew I would not." Sterk was confirmed for a position on the NIH Council. She says she believes that, despite her refusal to cooperate, a high-ranking NIH official intervened on behalf of her nomination. Nonetheless, she says she finds it deeply disturbing that the Bush administration would subject its nominees for a scientific advisory position to such intrusive, partisan political questions.23

Sterk's dismay is widely shared in the scientific community, where practitioners almost uniformly agree that questions of political affiliation have no place in the confirmation process. And yet, as the stories told here indicate, the practice of subjecting scientists to political litmus tests has become commonplace in the Bush administration. These stories hit a nerve because they represent a kind of overt affront to democratic process that smacks of McCarthy-era blacklists and loyalty pledges.

Most troubling, when politics is injected in such an overt way into the federal government's elaborate system for receiving scientific and technical advice, it threatens to skew the information that policymakers receive. Politically "loyal" advisers may too often tell an administration what it wants to hear or shy away from raising vital concerns in a timely fashion. And at the very least, of course, such politicization means that the nation is denied the advice and counsel of some of its leading experts. As Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science and a former president of Stanford University, has commented: "I don't think any administration has penetrated so deeply into the advisory committee structure as this one, and I think it matters. If you start picking people by their ideology instead of their scientific credentials, you are inevitably reducing the quality of the advisory group."24

Despite the administration's initial blustering and hapless denial by John Marburger, enough stories like these have surfaced to spur some surprisingly blunt governmental responses. In 2004 two important agencies issued reports explicitly denouncing the use of political litmus tests.

A report from the National Academy of Sciences, released in November 2004, is particularly forceful on the subject. Written by a panel including three former science advisers to both Democratic and Republican administrations, the report unequivocally declares: "It is no more appropriate to ask S&T [Science and Technology] experts to provide nonrelevant information—such as voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies—than to ask them other personal and immaterial information, such as hair color or height. This type of information has no relevance in discussions related to S&T." As the NAS panel wisely counsels, the nation is best served when scientists for advisory positions are selected "on the basis of their scientific and technical knowledge and credentials and their professional and personal integrity."25

So far it is unclear whether, in response to such high-level admonitions, top Bush administration officials will reconsider their political litmus test policy. Should they decide to, one of the indisputable benefits will be that the administration could avoid rejecting candidates on the basis of mistaken identity. That is what happened to William E. Howard III, an engineer from McLean, Virginia. Howard reported in a letter to Science that he was told by a member of the Army Science Board (ASB) staff that his nomination to a Defense Department advisory panel was rejected because he had contributed to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). In fact, says Howard, he never made such a contribution; instead, as it turns out, someone with a similar name—a William S. Howard—had contributed the money.26

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