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  Groups Petition National Academy of Sciences for more Committee Balance and Conflicts of Interest Disclosure

May 22, 2000
Dr. E. William Colglazier
Executive Officer
The National Academies
2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20418

Re: NAS Committee Composition & Disclosure Policies

Dear Dr. Colglazier:

We write to urge the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to:

  • make greater efforts to obtain balance on all of its committees; and
  • adopt a more open and standardized disclosure policy concerning potential conflicts of interest of nominees to and members of its committees.

We respectfully submit that such a policy, as described below, would both improve the quality of NAS’ numerous reports and engender greater public trust in those reports.

Committee Balance

The controversy concerning apparent conflicts of interest of members of the recent Committee on Genetically Modified Pest Protected Plants (CGMPPP) exemplifies the need for balance. Had greater balance been attained, the NAS and its report would have been spared much of the substantial criticism that they received in media reports. The criticism of the imbalance on the Committee has left a cloud of doubt over the reliability of the Committee’s report. That criticism was leveled by diverse parties. (See, e.g., Henry I. Miller, “Unwisdom from the Academy,” The Scientist, vil. 14, #9, p. 35 (May 1, 2000).) At least 8 of the 12 members of the Committee had some tie to industry and several members critiqued the very regulatory scheme that their former employer (EPA) had adopted. All of this and more suggest that the NAS should have been far more sensitive to the balance question from the outset.

That was not the first time that an NAS report was embroiled in controversy. We recall that a report (“Toward Healthy Diets”) by the Food and Nutrition Board brought strong criticism upon the NAS when journalists discovered that most of the members of the Committee were consultants to either the meat, dairy, or egg industries. That report found there was no need for healthy Americans to reduce their cholesterol (and fat) intake. (See Jane E. Brody, “Panel Reports Healthy Americans Need Not Cut Intake of Cholesterol,” NYT, May 28, 1980; Jane E. Brody, “Experts Assail Report Declaring Curb on Cholesterol Isn’t Needed,” NYT, June 1, 1980; Marian Burros, “More Than The Panel Could Swallow,” NYT, June 12, 1980; People, June 16, 1980). It was unfortunate that that embarrassing episode did not spur the Academy to implement sensible policies once and for all.

It is sometimes believed, mistakenly, that balance may be obtained by having an equal representation of individuals from industry, consumer groups, and academia. The problem with such divisions is that they fail to take into account the ever-increasing relationships between industry and the academy. (See, e.g., Eyal Press & Jennifer Washburn, “The Kept University,” Atlantic Monthly, March 2000, pp. 39-54; and David Shenk, “Money + Science = Ethics Problems on Campus,” The Nation, March 22, 1999, pp. 11-18) Given that fact, professors cannot categorically be presumed to be “neutral” third parties situated between industry and consumer groups.

Disclosure Policies

We applaud the NAS for some of its actions to further the goal of meaningful disclosure. We agree with the proposition — set forth in the Getting to Know the Committee Process pamphlet — that the “credibility of a report can be weakened if the committee that produced it is perceived to be biased.” Indeed, “[p]otential sources of bias and conflict of interest are significant issues . . . .” (emphasis added) Precisely such concerns impel us to urge the NAS to do more to disclose real and potential conflicts of interest, especially given the ever-increasing public concern about the conflicts issue. (Consider, e.g., NPR, Morning Edition report on conflicts in science, May 17, 2000).

The NAS’s “Potential Sources of Bias and Conflict of Interest” form is an excellent mechanism by which to provide the public and press with meaningful information concerning potential conflicts and committee composition. Questions I through III — concerning organizational affiliations, financial interests, and research support — are especially important. Indeed, such questions are so important that we believe that the information submitted in response to them should be shared with the public and press routinely.

The profiles of the CGMPPP, as set out on the NAS website, are notably more informative than what is disclosed to the public and press about other NAS committees. We were pleased to see that the CGMPPP biographical profiles contained disclosure statements such as: “Dr. ___ receives research funds from _____” or Professor ____ served “as a consultant to the pesticide industry.” While use of that format was incomplete — e.g., no such notation was provided for Professor Morris Levin (a consultant to the Bionomics Institute) — those disclosures represented an important step in the right direction. The NAS’s disclosures in the CGMPPP case also reveal just how easily such information can be made available to the public and press.

Unfortunately, no such disclosure was employed to identify the backgrounds of most of the members of the new Biotechnology, Food and Fiber Production, and the Environment Committee (BFFPE Committee).

Ms. Jennifer Kuzma, the Committee Staff Officer, informed CSPI (April 14, 2000) that disclosure was greater than usual for the CGMPPP owing to the “controversial” nature of the Committee’s work. If, indeed, that is the governing criterion for full and meaningful disclosure, it is hard to comprehend what makes one committee’s work more “controversial” (and thereby subject to greater public scrutiny) than that of another. Consistent with what the NAS has said in the Getting to Know the Committee Process pamphlet, all “[p]otential sources of bias and conflict of interest [are] significant issues.” That is true regardless of any subjective decision concerning the purported “controversial” character of a given committee’s work. The public’s right to know ought not hinge on how a committee is characterized. Furthermore, the work of every NAS committee is potentially significant and therefore at least potentially controversial.

Moreover, we note the peculiarity of the fact that government-sponsored NAS committees must abide by more stringent conflict and disclosure requirements than other NAS committees. The absence of a uniform policy — requiring balance and full disclosure — results in a situation where the public’s right to know may depend less on the importance of the work of a committee than on the existence of government funding. Additionally, if the NAS can readily abide by government disclosure requirements, why is it any more difficult to adhere to those same requirements in all other instances?

Failure to disclose, or selective disclosure, can only further embroil the NAS in controversy. Such a practice all-too-readily gives the impression — however mistaken — that the NAS is biased and only discloses information when constrained to do so.

Conclusion

For all of the above reasons, we respectfully recommend that the NAS use its best efforts to insure greater committee balance and to provide more disclosure information on a routine basis. Such policies should be adopted generally, and specifically in connection with the BFFPE Committee. Appended are our specific recommendations concerning disclosure and conflicts of interest.

Insofar as the composition of the BFFPE Committee and the disclosures about it are inconsistent with such policies (and we believe they are), we call upon the NAS to comply with those policies, reopen the time for public comment, and consider reconstituting the Committee.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these matters.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

_________________________________
Ronald Collins
Center for Science in the Public Interest

on behalf of:

Gary D. Bass
OMB Watch

Lisa A. Bero
Associate Professor of Clinical Pharmacy & Health Policy,
University of California at San Francisco*

Richard Caplan
U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Kenneth A. Cook
Environmental Working Group

Dianne Dumanoski
environmental writer & co-author of Our Stolen Future (1996)

Jay Feldman
Beyond Pesticides/ National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides

Carol Tucker Foreman
Consumer Federation of America

Rebecca Goldburg
Environmental Defense

Linda Greer
Natural Resources Defense Council

Paul Orum
Working Group on Community Right to Know

Margaret Mellon
Union of Concerned Scientists

Ralph Nader
consumer advocate

Sharon Newsome
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Jeff Wise
National Environmental Trust

Addendum

Recommendations Regarding Committee Balance and Disclosure of Conflicts of Interest

In order better to obtain objective scientific findings and maximize the public trust in the NAS and its many reports, we respectfully urge the NAS to make greater efforts to secure a more diverse and balanced selection of members for all of its committees. While perfect balance may not always be possible, the NAS must employ its best efforts to achieve balance.

To enhance the integrity of the NAS and to improve the quantity and quality of information provided to the public and press, we urge the NAS to adopt a formal and uniform disclosure policy, which at a minimum would, where relevant, contain the following disclosures:

  1. This Member, and/or a member of his or her immediate family, has had financial or other significant relations (including consulting relations) with the following companies, trade associations, unions, or groups (including civic and public interest groups);
     
  2. This Member has financial interests in excess of $____ in the following companies or partnerships (other than mutual stock or bond funds): _____;
     
  3. This Member has received research support in excess of $____ from _______;
     
  4. This Member has received research funds or other goods or services in excess of $____ from his university or department that were provided by the following non- governmental sources: _____;
     
  5. This Member has served as an expert witness on a subject relevant to this Committee and has received some form of remuneration from _____; and
     
  6. This member has a patent, or plans to apply for one, on a process or product relevant to the subject matter of this Committee.

* This letter represents Professor Bero’s views but not necessarily those of the University of California.