Conflicts of Interest at the National Academies?

July 26th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a very interesting report (PDF) this week which found substantial conflicts of interest present among members of study panels at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, and more specifically its National Research Council which oversees its study panels).

Why should we care about conflicts at the NAS? According to CSPI:

Self-interested parties, including Congress, government agencies, and corporate lobbying groups, are increasingly turning to the NAS to define the scientific state of play on controversial topics, whether it is global warming, stem cell research, or a specific toxic chemical. For the NAS to maintain its credibility in this role, it must be vigilant in rooting out even the appearance of conflicts of interest among its committee members.

What did CSPI conclude?

. . . we found serious deficiencies in the NAS’s committee-selection process that could jeopardize the quality of future NAS reports. The NAS has allowed numerous scientists (and others) with blatant conflicts of interest to sit on committees. Compounding that problem, those conflicts of interest usually are not disclosed to the public

The CSPI defines a conflict of interest as “a financial tie within the last five years to a company or industry that is relevant to the committee topic.” Under this definition, of the 21 committees it it looked at CSPI found that “Nearly one out of every five scientists appointed to an NAS panel has direct financial ties to companies or industry groups with a direct stake in the outcome of that study.” The NAS did not acknowledge publicly many of these financial interests.

The CSPI further alleged that the NAS did not take efforts to balance the perspectives of its committees finding a ratio of more than 7 to 1 appointees favoring industry perspectives over environmental or public interest group perspectives. The CSPI recommends that the NAS “should expand its definition of balance on committees to include bias and point of view, in addition to areas of expertise.” This perspective is contrary to that taken by the NAS itself which has supported non-disclosure of information such as “voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies.”

We have periodically raised the issue of NAS committee composition at the NAS, for instance on reports on Hubble Space Telescope, perchlorate, and on the advisory process itself. Advisory committee composition is an important subject, and I agree with the CSPI that in many cases the NAS could be more transparent and balanced. At the same, we should resist the lure of believing that there are heroic philosopher kings out there with no biases except for the truth. As I have argued before (e.g., Washington Post PDF), what an advisory committee is asked to do is as important as who they ask to do it. An advisory committee tasked with placing science into the context of a range of policy options may be less likely than a committee focused only on science or a single course of action to slip from advice into advocacy.

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