Friday, June 22, 2007

If It Can't Stand the Light of Day...

Attention Scientists! Want to keep the gravy train moving and the research grants flowing? Want to see more shiny new labs with the latest in sparkling equipment?

Build public confidence. Open the doors and explain the mystery. Don't shut out the people. Don't feed the anti-science Luddites.

Much has been written about distrust of scientists and their arcane ways. Most people are more concerned about the pedestrian issues of daily life than the esoteric issues that researchers probe. The public turns its attention to scientific matters in times of major achievement but also in times of scandal and suspicion. And when little is known about a subject, bad information can easily carry the day in the court of public opinion.

Which brings us to the National Academy of Sciences and its closed door sessions on the seemingly innocuous subject of interstate cooperation on embryonic stem cell research. We have written a few times about how the academy ousted a member of the public from its meeting on the matter last month in California. The academy apparently plans to continue this dubious policy.

Today the question is: Why should you care? The answer: If you favor good science, well-funded by government, you have something at stake.

Can scientists be trusted with public money? Are they open to public concerns? High-handed tactics, closed door meetings and secret agendas generate negative responses to those questions and play into the hands of those who fear science and seek to bring it to heel. No good reason exists for barring the public from the meetings on interstate cooperation. The meetings are attended by public officials discussing public policy about billions of dollars in public money.

The NAS itself owes its existence to an act of Congress. Many of its proceedings are already public, including such sessions as one dealing with adverse biological and health effects of cell phones and another dealing with "The 1,000-ship Navy -- A Distributed and Global Maritime Network." Is interstate cooperation on stem research more "sensitive" than those issues? We think not.

In many cases, the NAS has the legal right to close its doors. But the various state stem cell officials should not be party to such proceedings concerning interstate cooperation. We have queried a number of participants in May's closed door meeting to see if they planned to continue to attend meetings that bar the public. None has responded although we promised to carry their comments verbatim. Several possible reasons exist for the non-response. The officials may feel that this flap -- a relatively minor matter in many ways at this point -- will go away. They may feel uncomfortable as public officials in stating that they approve of closed door meetings. And they may be unwilling to publicly offend the National Academy of Sciences.

The NAS itself has not responded to our repeated queries. It also has not responded even to questions about the date for the next interstate meeting. And its written response to the man ousted from the May meeting was delivered to him one week after it went to agencies that were copied in on the letter.

When we worked in the California governor's office years ago, we were sometimes asked by top appointees about public meetings. Our response was, "If it can't stand the light of day, don't do it." That is good advice also for the National Academy of Sciences and its meetings on stem cell cooperation.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this contained slightly different information re the NAS response to the ousted man. This item has been updated to reflect the latest information.)

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