Bush Administration Overhauls Scientific Advisory Committees
The Bush administration has begun a "broad restructuring" of the 250 scientific advisory committees that guide HHS on a wide range of health issues, the Washington Post reports. The committees, which operate in near anonymity, are "important because their interpretation of scientific data can sway an agency's approach to health risk and regulation," the Post reports. In recent weeks, the administration eliminated two committees with views seemingly "at odds with the president's views" and replaced almost all the members of a third committee with "handpicked choices" who have strong ties to the industries about which they will be advising. The following is a summary of changes in the three committees:
Secretary's Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing: Charged with advising the FDA on risks associated with the emerging gene-testing industry, this committee examined among other issues how the agency should regulate "home-brew" genetic tests, which are being sold by a growing number of companies, the Post reports. The committee convinced the FDA to assert its authority in regulating the sale of the tests and was helping the agency to develop guidelines to that effect when the Bush administration "[s]uddenly" disbanded the committee and put oversight plans on hold. HHS spokesperson William Pierce said the committee was not eliminated because of its regulatory stance, adding that the administration plans to create a new committee to address a "broader range of genetic technologies," the Post reports. Members of the new committee have not been named.
National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee: Created under the Clinton administration to advise the White House on protecting human participants in clinical trials, the committee was disbanded because it "angered the pharmaceutical industry" by suggesting stricter research conflict-of-interest rules, some unnamed sources claim, the Post reports. According to the sources, the committee "r[a]n afoul of religious conservatives" by failing to support a Bush administration priority to include fetuses in regulations regarding research on human newborns. Pierce said the administration plans to form a new committee on clinical trial safety that has a "broader, as yet undetermined" mission, the Post reports. HHS officials said they hope Mildred Jefferson, a doctor who helped found that National Right to Life Committee and served as its president, will serve on the new committee.
- Advisory Committee to the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health: The administration will replace 15 of the committee's 18 members, including Thomas Burke, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University who has served as chair of the committee for almost five years, the Post reports. While Burke said he understands the "constant turnover" that often occurs on advisory committees, he added, "What's of concern though is to see so much turnover at one time, especially at such a critical time for the CDC." Burke added that many of the people expected to be named to the committee, which is charged with assessing the health effects of low-level exposure to environmental chemicals, have "well-known" connections to the chemical industry, the Post reports.
The committee overhaul is "rattling some HHS employees," who say that changes on a similar scale have not occurred since the Reagan administration's early years, the Post reports. The moves represent a "quie[t] dismantl[ing]" of the Clinton administration's influence on the way scientific policies are created, the Post reports. However, Pierce defended the restructuring, saying, "No one should be surprised when an administration makes changes like this. I don't think there is anything going on here that has not gone on with each and every administration since George Washington" (Weiss, Washington Post, 9/17).
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