Thursday, June 14, 2007

The National Academy of Sciences: Feeding the Anti-Science Movement

The National Academy of Sciences has not distinguished itself with its response to the flap about barring the public from a meeting of public officials discussing interstate cooperation on billions of dollars in stem cell research financed with taxpayer funds.

We have not heard from the academy concerning the hooha but it finally responded to a letter of protest from John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights of Santa Monica, Ca., who was ousted from the meeting in California last month. An academy official said the meeting was "private" although state officials were there at taxpayer expense discussing issues of public import in at least 10 states.

The letter from the NAS demonstrated a fundamental failure to grasp that secrecy on this subject is not in the best interests of the public or of the academy. Closing the door only generates suspicion and distrust and unnecessarily feeds the anti-science movement in this country.

Here is the text of NAS letter to Simpson and Simpson's response. First the letter of E. William Colglazier, executive officer of the NAS.
"I am responding to your letter of May 24 regarding the meeting at the Beckman Center in Irvine, California, on May 23 and 24 involving representatives of states involved in stem cell research. That meeting was an invitation-only planning session, which we were requested to convene, to discuss the potential interest of states regarding sharing information and improving coordination in the future. As the states decide how and when to move forward with information sharing and interstate coordination activities, I expect that there will be ample opportunities for public involvement."
Simpson's reply:
"Thank you for your June 13 response to my letter of May 24 expressing concerns about the private meeting of representatives of state stem cell research programs. You give me great comfort.

"Any doubts that I had about earlier characterization of the National Academy of Sciences as a paternalistic organization that believes the public cannot be trusted to understand science have been put to rest.

"Moreover, your suggestion that 'there will be ample opportunities for public involvement' in the future misses the point.

"The meeting in Irvine, CA, was of representatives of publicly funded stem cell research programs talking about public policy. The public should have been involved from the beginning, not at some vague future date at the convenience of the scientific bureaucracy.

"You should apologize for closing the meeting, and any future sessions of this group must be open to the public.

"The National Academy of Sciences' paternalistic approach only serves to undercut public confidence in any policies that may emerge from the interstate meetings. This does not serve the interests of the states, the National Academy nor stem cell research."
As we mentioned earlier, public officials from any state should not attend any further closed-door meetings on this matter. No good reason exists for banning the public. All of the issues can and should be discussed in public. Airing differing views early is one good way to write intelligent policy and build public support.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this incorrectly quoted Simpson's letter as saying xxxx at the convenience of the scientific democracy (instead of bureaucracy).

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