Letter to the Editor of Science

(Draft, 3/20/00)

Charlene King
Letters Editor, Science
1200 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20005

Dear Ms. King:

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, the President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Bruce Alberts and a dozen other presidents of national science academies, proposed the creation of an International Academy Council (IAC) as a global science advisory board to provide "impartial scientific advice" to governments and international organizations on issues such as genetic engineering, threatened ecosystems, and biodiversity (Academies Get Together to Tackle the Big Issues, Science, February 11, p. 943). While most would agree with Alberts "that the world needs much more advice from scientists," there are serious questions on reliance of advice from the proposed IAC based on an NAS model.

Through its operating arm the National Research Council (NRC), the NAS conducts studies and provides reports under contract to a wide range of federal agencies. However, in flagrant violation of governmental openness rules, the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (1), which Alberts has vehemently opposed, NAS-NRC committees and panels meet in unannounced and closed sessions, fail to disclose their minutes and other documentation including conflict of interest statements, and fail to require that their membership reflects balanced representation of divergent interests and viewpoints. Illustrative is the membership and conduct of the NRC committee on "Comparative Toxicity of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens" which issued the 1996 report on "Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet." This report trivialized concerns on risks of cancer to infants and children from consumption of food and vegetables contaminated with carcinogenic pesticides which were claimed to "occur at levels far too low to have any adverse effects on health." Acting on behalf of an ad hoc coalition of about 100 leading independent experts in public health and cancer prevention with representation from a wide range of labor and citizen groups, I warned Alberts that membership of this committee was grossly unbalanced and "disproportionately weighted with industry consultants" (2). Alberts responded admitting "that some of the committee members have performed some consulting for industry," but dismissed these concerns as "the same members have also advised or consulted for regulatory agencies" (3). Other concerns were expressed that the composition of the NRC Committee could "be used to discredit or undermine" the previous NRC report on "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children," which warned of cancer risks, and that no pediatrician was invited to serve on the NRC panel on "Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens" (4).

Evaluation of global concerns, particularly in public health and environmental integrity, should not be entrusted to a non-transparent and unaccountable cabal of self-appointed experts, such as the proposed NAS-modeled IAC, whose views may reflect special interests rather than the public. Instead, highly qualified independent scientists acceptable to or working with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) should play a major role in an international science advisory body, such as the recently proposed World Academy of Science in Society or the Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAST).

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine
School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago and
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
2121 W. Taylor St.
Chicago, IL 60612

Mae Wan Ho, Ph.D.
The Open University
Walton Hall, Milton Keynes

  1. K. Gage and S.S. Epstein, Environmental Law Reporter 7, 50001 (1977)
  2. S.S. Epstein, Letter to Bruce Alberts, August 24, 1993
  3. B. Alberts, Letter to S.S. Epstein, September 23, 1993
  4. P. Landrigan, Letter to J. Reisa, NAS-NRC, August 16, 1993

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