Monday, June 11, 2007

National Academy of Sciences Fails Public Responsibility Test on State Stem Cell Issues

"Absolutely outrageous," "outmoded, elitist" complete with a "public-can’t-understand-science attitude" -- the National Academy of Sciences.

That is the description of the group as provided by John M. Simpson, the normally mild-mannered stem cell project director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights of Santa Monica, Ca., who has trekked north and south through California for a couple of years following and influencing California's $3 billion stem cell research effort.

Simpson was justifiably irked when he was barred last month from a NAS-supported meeting of public officials by Fran Sharples, life sciences director of the the NAS. Simpson had been invited to the first meeting of the group in Connecticut, but could not attend. When he showed up for a follow-up meeting in Irvine, Ca., Sharples said that it was private and he could not attend despite having being invited earlier.

But invitation or not, Simpson's point is that this is public business – not some private, secret affair.

Attending the session in May were representatives of 10 state public stem cell research programs from across the nation. The two-day session was aimed at creating the Interstate Alliance for Stem Cell Research. Among its goals would be "creating opportunities for collaboration among different states' stem cell programs and harmonizing regulations."

All of which is of great importance to state research efforts, which are funded by public money – not NAS funds – and which are generally required to operate in public under open meeting and open records laws.

Simpson wrote a letter of protest to Ralph J. Cicerone and E. William Colgazier, respectively president and executive officer of the academy, concerning its egregious behavior.

Simpson said,
"When the public is shut out of the process, we can only wonder what is being done behind closed doors. For instance, in the quest to 'harmonize' regulations between states will only the lowest common denominator in regulations be adopted?"
And again this month, Simpson said,
"We completely support efforts to foster co-operation among the states, but the notion that the National Academy of Sciences would close such a meeting to the public is absolutely outrageous. It is the outmoded, elitist, public-can’t-understand-science attitude, that ultimately undermines the public’s willingness to fund research. It’s time NAS moved into the 21st century. Their current behavior is exactly what prompts the know-nothing attitude of our president and his right-wing base."
The National Academy of Sciences is a nonprofit organization created by Congress. The intent of Congress was to create an organization that serves the public, albeit indirectly. The Federal Advisory Committee Act which deals with the NAS seems intended to open rather close the academy's proceedings. The action last month in Irvine barring the public from an important stem cell meeting violates the intent if not the letter of that law.

We have asked the NAS for a response or justification (including information on its funding sources) but it has not responded. Nor has it yet responded to Simpson's letter of 18 days ago. We will carry the group's statement verbatim when we receive it.

For now, however, the academy should be embarrassed by its highhanded conduct. Moreover, closing the doors on the public is harmful to the academy and defeats its purpose of advancing the cause of science. Instead the NAS is breeding suspicion and distrust.

The California stem cell agency, as well as those in the other states, should boycott any further meetings of the NAS on the subject of interstate cooperation unless it is willing to open the sessions.

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