Rejuvenating Public Sector Science

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CommonDreams.org

Rejuvenating Public Sector Science

by
Kirsten Stade

Budding young scientists are taught that the nation's scientific enterprise reflects an unblinkered search for truth, conducted by dispassionate researchers divorced from preconceived bias or monetary gain. Alas, in the real world, far too many scientists have hired themselves out to the highest bidders -- corporate interests that use their science-for-hire papers to cast doubt on the facts that our planet is warming, smoking kills, and toxic chemicals can cause birth defects.

In recent years, these ongoing campaigns to stop regulations that would reduce carbon emissions, clean up our food, air and water, or control tobacco have been joined by a war on government-funded science itself, targeted against scientists who work to promote public health and a cleaner environment. Budgets have been slashed. Good scientists have been turned into whistleblowers because their global warming reports have been quashed, their clean air analyses ignored and their species protection plans shelved.

In the health care arena, where skyrocketing costs are the primary reason 50 million Americans do not have insurance, drug and medical device companies have staged a money-driven friendly takeover of the practice of medicine. Physician-researchers on industry's payroll publish papers touting the latest pills or technologies based on flimsy or no evidence, and then write a clinical practice guideline suggesting the new, pricier technology ought to be used. Then some of these very same researchers hide their conflicts of interest when publishing in the medical literature, all to further their and their sponsors' bottom lines.

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to turn on this corporate-driven war on science. Laws have been proposed that would protect government scientists who blow the whistle. Congressional investigations have exposed administration efforts to silence scientists and uncovered hidden drug industry payments -- such as those to the psychiatrists who were responsible for promoting anti-psychotic-drug use in thousands of kids. Laws have been proposed to eliminate conflicts of interest on federal advisory committees.

This progressive counteroffensive in the war on science will be highlighted at the fourth national Integrity in Science conference on July 11 in Washington, sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This year's theme, "Rejuvenating Public Sector Science," will illuminate a path out of the current morass. Only by bolstering the resources available to government agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment and affirming their authority to do their jobs can industry's efforts to undermine sound science be defeated.

The conference will feature award-winning climate scientist James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and who was the first to focus global attention on the growing urgency of the climate crisis when he testified before a Senate Committee in 1988. Hansen is recognized as one of the world's foremost authorities on the need for immediate action to avert climate disaster, and can attest to the powerful forces that have fought to keep his message from reaching the public.

In addition to Hansen's talk, other panel sessions will focus on insulating alternative energy research from industry attacks, protecting scientist whistleblowers from retribution, enforcing rigorous conflict of interest disclosure policies by scientific journals, and restoring scientific integrity to government agencies entrusted with conservation of wildlife and natural resources. Congressman Brad Miller, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee on Science and Technology will speak on "Preserving Scientific Integrity: The Role of Congressional Oversight."

The conference begins at 9:00 am on July 11, 2008 at the Ronald Reagan International Center in Washington, DC. Register and see the full agenda at http://cspinet.org/integrity/conflictedscience_conf.html.

Science and the rationality it brings to government decisionmaking has a crucial role to play in solving the climate, energy and health care crises. CSPI's Rejuvenating Public Sector Science conference will be of interest to anyone interested in helping to put these issues squarely on the agenda of the next administration.

Kirsten Stade manages the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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