In an official response to the 2004 UCS report Scientific Integrity in Policy Making,1 which documented that political litmus tests have been applied by representatives of the Bush administration to candidates for scientific advisory positions, Bush administration Science Adviser John H. Marburger III stated "the accusation of a litmus test that must be met before someone can serve on an advisory panel is preposterous."2
Since Dr. Marburger's statement, however, 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. In one such example, as originally reported in the New England Journal of Medicine,3 Gerald T. Keusch, who served from October 1998 to December 2003 as associate director for international research at the National Institutes of Health and as a director of an NIH branch called the Fogarty International Center, observed a dramatic change in the appointment process when the Bush administration took office. Now serving as assistant provost for global health at Boston University Medical Center, Dr. Keusch said that during three years under the Bush administration, he proposed 26 candidates to serve on the Fogarty Center's council-level advisory board. All the candidates he nominated were approved within a week by the NIH director but, after many months of delays in almost every case, only seven were approved by the Bush administration, while the remaining 19 candidates were rejected. Dr. Keusch contrasts this record with his personal experience during the previous administration, in which all seven of his nominations for the board were swiftly approved.
Describing the circumstances surrounding the repeated rejection of his nominees, Dr. Keusch said that because the Fogarty Center gives research grants, "I knew what skills I needed on my board to review grants and help determine future scientific directions for the Center. I had 30 years of experience in science and developing countries and I knew who understood and had personal experience in developing countries and who could provide the scientific insight the Center, and I as director, desired."4 Accordingly, he says, all his scientific nominees to the Fogarty Center's advisory board represented highly credentialed experts in their fields.
In his first set of nominations, Dr. Keusch proposed to empanel Torsten Wiesel, a Nobel laureate in medicine; Jane Menken, a highly respected demographer at the University of Colorado; and Geeta Rao Gupta, an internationally-known expert on women's health and the president of the Washington, DC-based International Center for Research on Women. After more than seven months of delay in Secretary Tommy Thompson's office at the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Keusch said he learned that all three of these initial candidates had been rejected without explanation.
"I was disappointed and puzzled," Dr. Keusch recalls. He went to Ruth Kirschstein, then acting director of the NIH, and requested that he be allowed to meet with Secretary Thompson's office. As Dr. Keusch puts it, "I had managed to get a Nobel laureate to agree to serve on my board and, if he was going to be rejected, I wanted to know why."
Dr. Keusch recalled that the meeting with Secretary Thompson's staff and another administration official was deeply disturbing. "There is no written record, but I was told that Dr. Wiesel was rejected because he had signed too many full-page letters in The New York Times critical of President Bush. I was told Dr. Menken was unacceptable because she was on the board of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health research organization. Dr. Rao Gupta, I was told, was deemed too political because she had publicly supported women's right to abortion."
Read about other scientific abuses at NIH from the July 2004 update:
1. Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 2004. Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science. Cambridge, MA: Union of Concerned Scientists. February 18. An updated edition of this report, published in March 2004, is available online at http://old.ucsusa.org/rsi.
2. See Marburger III, J.H., 2004. "Statement of the Honorable John H. Marburger, III on Scientific Integrity in the Bush Administration." April 2. p.3.
3. Steinbrook, R. 2004. "Science, Politics, and Federal Advisory Committees," The New England Journal of Medicine 350(14):1454-1460. April 1.
4. This and the statements that follow come from an interview with Gerald T. Keusch, April 2004, for the UCS Scientific Integrity report.