HHS Seeks Right of Approval Over Experts on WHO Health Panels

Published Apr 11, 2004

In April 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented a new policy requiring that an HHS official approve all experts prior to their participation on scientific panels convened by United Nations (UN) organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). The scientific panels work on international health issues, such as AIDS prevention and treatment, tobacco control, and family planning, on which Bush administration policy has often been at odds with that of intergovernmental agencies.

HHS justified its policy as a practical measure aimed at matching U.N. organizations with the department's most "appropriate" experts. The person deciding which experts are "appropriate" would be special assistant to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and director of the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs, William Steiger.¹

Many in the scientific community denounced the new policy as an unprecedented attempt to limit the ability of HHS employees to offer independent scientific advice. Dr. D.A. Henderson, a renowned epidemiologist and advisor to Secretary Thompson, said "I do not feel this is an appropriate or constructive thing to do. . . In the scientific world, we have a generally open process. We deal with science. I am unaware of such clearance ever having been required before."² 

Similarly, Gerald Keusch, assistant provost for global health at the Boston University Medical Center, said that "political appointees who are not scientists should not be judging what science needs to be done and who advises the science agencies. The department seems to be either confusing policy and science or deliberately making science conform to policy."³

The new vetting policy was revealed in a letter from William Steiger to Denis G. Aitken, Assistant Director-General of WHO. In the letter, Steiger said that the WHO could no longer directly contact HHS experts directly regarding their participation on health panels, but should submit requests by area of expertise and allow HHS to suggest which expert would be most appropriate. Steiger also stated in the letter to Aitken that U.S. Government experts could not serve on panels in their individual capacity as scientists, but must "serve as representatives of the U.S. Government at all times and advocate U.S. Government policies," a claim which may violate First Amendment rights.4

Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) promptly wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson asking that the policy be rescinded. Waxman argued that under the new policy "the Administration will be able to refuse to provide any experts whenever it wishes to stall international progress on controversial topics. Similarly, officials will be able to suppress the views of scientists whose research does not provide results supporting administration policies…This unprecedented process will delay and politicize cooperation on a range of critical public health issues."5 

Dennis Aitken, Assistant Director-General of WHO, also noted that the new HHS policy would have a negative impact on WHO's ability to convene independent scientific panels, saying "It's an important issue for us [WHO]. We do need independent science." Aitken highlighted the difference between scientific panels and government policy discussions, saying "If we want [to know] government positions, we have government meetings."6 

A statement from the American Sociologists' Association summed up the potential danger of this type of politicization of scientific communication, saying "The inevitable result will be fewer invitations for U.S. scientists to contribute to scientific discourse at the international level and the consequent lessening of U.S. influence and relevance."7

1. Letter from William R. Steiger to Dennis G. Aitken, Assistant Director-General and Director of the Office of the Director-General, World Health Organization (April 15, 2005), accessed 15 September 2006.
2. Tom Hamburger, "Health and Human Services Department Orders Vetting of Experts on Panels Convened by the UN's Health Agency," The Los Angeles Times, 26 June 2004.
3. Denise Kersten, "HHS Monitors Scientists' Meetings With International Groups," GOVEXEC.com, 2 August 2004, accessed 15 September 2006. 
4. Letter from Steiger to Aitken.
5. Letter from Representative Henry A. Waxman to the Honorable Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services (June 24, 2004), accessed 15 September 2006.
6. Hamburger.
7. "Statement of the American Sociological Association on the US Government Vetting of Scientists to Serve on International Advisory Bodies," American Sociological Association, 18 August 2004, accessed 15 September 2006.