Are the National Academies Fair and Balanced?
One in Five Scientists on NAS Issue Panels Tied to Firms Involved in Issue
Congress created the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to provide independent, science-based advice to policymakers in government. But according to a year-long review of 21 NAS committees conducted by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), nearly one out of every five scientists appointed to an NAS panel has direct financial ties to companies or industry groups with a direct stake in the outcome of the study. And about half of the panels examined had some scientists with readily identifiable biases who were not offset by scientists with alternative points of view.
CSPI doesn’t dispute the high quality of reports produced by the National Academies (which include the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council). But it says that the NAS should strengthen its policies for avoiding and disclosing conflicts of interest and for maintaining balance if the NAS is to maintain the credibility it currently enjoys.
Of the 320 committee members CSPI evaluated, 18 percent had direct conflicts of interest, meaning a direct and recent connection to a company or industry with a financial stake in the study outcome. For example, an Institute of Medicine panel evaluating the risk of mercury in fish included a scientist who had research funded by the United States Tuna Foundation and the National Food Processors Association, pro-industry research and lobbying groups. In another example, 10 out of 11 scientists on a “State Practices in Setting Mobile Source Emissions Standards” panel had ties to carbon-emitting industries. Similarly, on an NAS panel that reviewed the Department of Energy’s Carbon Sequestration Program, 10 of 11 panelists had ties to petroleum, energy, or chemical industries. Few of those conflicts of interest were disclosed to the public.
“The NAS needs to be more transparent and work harder to find scientists without conflicts of interest,” said Merrill Goozner, director of CSPI’s Integrity in Science Project and co-author of the report. “It also needs to pay closer attention to the biases that some committee members may bring to those panels to ensure that those members with biases are properly balanced with scientists who have alternative or contrasting views.”
CSPI recommends that the NAS expand its definitions regarding conflicts of interest and bias. The groups says conflicts of interest should include any financial ties within the past five years to companies that might be affected by the committee’s work, either directly or indirectly, and that “balance” on committees should reflect bias and point of view in addition to areas of expertise. Panels with a disproportionate number of pro-industry scientists should be balanced with at least an equal number of public interest-oriented scientists. To facilitate full disclosure, the report also recommends that the NAS adopt sanctions to encourage compliance, such as a three-year ban on serving on any NAS panel when a committee member fails to disclose appropriate information on the NAS disclosure forms.
“Recommendations from the National Academies typically merit the respect they receive among policy makers in this country and throughout the world,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “To maintain that kind of credibility, the Academies must take steps to ensure their panels are truly independent from the industries whose practices they often study. While disclosure of conflicts of interest is helpful, the focus should be on eliminating conflicts altogether.”
CSPI released its report the day of a panel discussion it organized in Washington where representatives from the FDA, industry groups, and academics debated conflict-of-interest issues on panels at federal agencies and the NAS.
Legislation that would bar scientists with financial ties to drug makers and medical-device companies from serving on FDA advisory committees, sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), passed the House in May and will be considered by a conference committee in the fall. CSPI, which backs that measure, encourages the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies that establish study panels under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, as well as the NAS, to adopt similar policies.