National Institute on Drug Abuse Subjects Scientific Appointees to Litmus Test

Published Feb 18, 2005

Dr. William R. Miller of the University of New Mexico, a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry, the pioneer of a leading substance abuse treatment, and author of more than 100 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, says that his 2002 interview for a slot on a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) advisory panel included questions about whether his views were congruent with those held by President Bush and whether he had voted for Bush in 2000. Presumably based on his answers, Miller was denied the appointment.1

Dr. Claire Sterk had a similar experience; during her confirmation process for the Council of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Sterk reports she was subjected to repeated questioning about her political views in three separate calls from a White House staff member. Among the questions she was asked, and refused to answer, was whether she had voted for President Bush.

"I have nothing to hide," Dr. Sterk commented. "But I told the questioner that I did not see the connection between his line of questioning and my work on a scientific advisory council. And I refused to answer unless the questioner could tell me that I would have some kind of particular political policy role, which I knew I would not."2

Despite her refusal, however, Dr. Sterk states that the White House staffer continued trying to elicit an answer about her vote in the presidential election "for roughly 15 minutes." Dr. Sterk was asked many other overtly political questions that she refused to answer, such as whether she supported "faith-based" drug treatment programs. While Dr. Sterk was confirmed for a position on the NIH council, she says she believes that a high-ranking NIH official may well have intervened on behalf of her nomination. Nonetheless, she says she finds it deeply disturbing that the Bush administration would subject its nominees for a scientific advisory position to such intrusive, partisan political questions.

Like Dr. Sterk, other scientists interviewed by the Union of Concerned Scientists for its 2004 Report on Scientific Integrity in Policymaking expressed dismay and discouragement about what they consider to be an overt politicization of the appointment process for scientific advisory positions. Scientists who have served Democratic and Republican administrations alike agree that questions of political affiliation have no place in the confirmation process for our highest echelon of science advisers and that the current administration's practice is reprehensible.

As Donald Kennedy, editor of Science and former president of Stanford University, has noted, "I don’t think any administration has penetrated so deeply into the advisory committee structure as this one, and I think it matters. If you start picking people by their ideology instead of their scientific credentials you are inevitably reducing the quality of the advisory group."3

Read about other scientific abuses at NIH:

  1. Rather than focusing on Miller’s scientific qualifications, a White House liaison to the Department of Health and Human Services grilled Miller about his views on abortion, capital punishment, and many other topics. See E. Benson, “Political science: allegations of politicization are threatening the credibility of the federal government’s scientific advisory committees,” Monitor on Psychology: Journal of the American Psychological Association, March 2003. See also K. Silverstein, “Bush’s new political science,” Mother Jones, November-December 2002.
  2. This and the statements that follow come from an author interview with Claire Sterk, March. 2004.
  3. As quoted in Zitner, A. 2002. “Advisors Put Under a Microscope,” The Los Angeles Times. Dec 23.