Workplace Safety Panel Nominees Face Political Litmus Tests

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

In a well-documented case involving the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary Tommy Thompson dismissed three well-qualified experts on ergonomics from a narrowly focused peer review panel at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).1 The three nominees in question had been selected to join a so-called study section of the Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health that evaluates research grants on workplace injuries.2 Based on their credentials and reputations in the field, the three had been chosen by the committee chair and panel staff, and had initially been approved by the director of NIOSH.

Study sections such as this one are responsible for offering peer review of ongoing research, not for advising on policy matters, and therefore have almost never seen their service affected by a change of administration. Traditionally, scientists in such positions have always been chosen strictly for their expertise, just as their peer review work requires them to assess research solely based on its scientific merit.

In this case, however, at least two of the rejected nominees believe that the George W. Bush administration denied them positions because of their support for a workplace ergonomics standard, a policy opposed by the administration. Dr. Laura Punnett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said she had little doubt that she was removed from the study section for political reasons. There were no complaints about her work during the year she served in an ad hoc basis on the study section and she was told upon her dismissal by the chair of the study section that her removal had nothing to do with her credentials or the quality of her work.3

"I was shocked,” Punnett told the press after her rejection.  “I think it conveys very powerfully that part of the goal is to intimidate researchers and limit what research questions are asked.”4

Another rejected nominee, Dr. Manuel Gomez, former director of scientific affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, says he was not informed why his nomination was rejected after having been endorsed by NIOSH staff.  Gomez says an agency staffer did tell him, however, that he “had never before seen this kind of decision coming in contravention of the agency’s recommendation.”5

Here again, the circumstances of the case strongly indicate a politically motivated intervention. Such concerns are heightened by the fact that another prospective member of the study section— Dr. Pamela Kidd, associate dean of the College of Nursing at Arizona State University—charged publicly that someone from Secretary Thompson’s staff, while vetting her nomination, had asked politically motivated questions such as whether she would be an advocate on ergonomics issues.6 

As one person close to this incident put it, taking all the above details into consideration, “I don’t know for sure why these respected scientists were kicked out, but it sure smelled foul.”7

1. D. Ferber, “HHS Intervenes in Choice of Study Section Members,” Science, November 15, 2002.
2. A. Zitner, “Advisors Put Under a Microscope,” Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2002.
3. Author interview with Laura Punnett, January 2004.
4. Ferber, Science.
5. Author interview with Manuel Gomez, November 2003.
6. Zitner, Los Angeles Times.
7. Author interview, name withheld on request, November 2003.

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