Friday, January 31, 2003

Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science elaborates on the administration's hiring policies:
A nominee for the National Institutes of Health Muscular Dystrophy Research Coordinating Committee is vetted by a staffer from the Office of White House Liaison, Health and Human Services. After being asked about her views on various Bush administration policies, none of them related to the work of the committee, she is asked whether she supports the president's embryonic stem cell policy.

A distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology receives a call from the White House about his nomination to serve on the National Council on Drug Abuse. His interviewer declares that he must vet him to "determine whether he held any views that might be embarrassing to the president." A series of questions follows, into which the interviewer interpolates a running score, viz.: "You're two for three; the president opposes needle exchange on moral grounds regardless of the outcome." He then asks whether the candidate had voted for Bush, and on being informed that he had not, asked: "Why didn't you support the president?"

This stuff would be prime material for a Robin Williams comedy shtick, but it really isn't funny. The purpose of advisory committees is to provide balanced, thoughtful advice to the policy process; it is better not to put the policy up front. As for study sections, deciding which research projects to support has always been a matter for objective peer review. Political preferences are for the pork barrel, and the Congress is already doing too much of that. Indeed, the applicable statute for all this--the Federal Advisory Committee Act--specifically requires that committees be balanced and "not inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority." It would be a good idea for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and the White House Personnel Office to read the law, and then follow it.


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