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An Epidemic of Politics

Americans, like citizens in countries throughout the world, have come to accept that politics plays an important role in the appointment of certain kinds of public officials. Few of us are surprised (though some may be disappointed) when a federal judgeship is awarded or a senior diplomat appointed because the candidate passes a litmus test of loyalty to some principle that is important to the President's or Prime Minister's party. But science, almost everyone agrees, is different, and here the United States is beginning to stand as a cautionary example to the rest of the world.

Scientific appointments should rest on objective criteria of training, ability, and performance. Clearly, it is legitimate to interrogate a future Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) about his views on abortion. But it is entirely out of place when appointees to scientific advisory committees are subjected to tests of political loyalty. Similarly, membership of bodies that conduct peer review of scientific proposals - a process that is fundamental to scientific progress - surely ought to be free of all barriers to entry that are unrelated to professional qualifications.

Unfortunately, scientists in the US are running up against such barriers more and more often. During the past fall, the journal Science published several news stories related to the issue.

One involved the wholesale replacement of members of the advisory committee to the National Center for Environmental Health, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), without consulting the center's director. Similar cases involved the CDC's Advisory Committee on Lead Poisoning and Prevention, the Advisory Committee on National Human Research Protections, and the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing.