In an editorial
in this week's issue, the editors of the British medical journal The Lancet
take the Bush Administration to task for its new policy by which DHHS'
Office of Global Public Health will choose which, if any, US Government scientists can serve as advisers to WHO. Instead of going directly to the experts they want as technical advisers, as WHO has done in the past, the organisation must now provide the Office of Global and Public Health, which is headed by a political appointee, with "terms of reference" for each proposed consultation--a process that it concedes "will require a minimum lead-time of 3 weeks". A written directive goes on to remind WHO that US Government employees are required "to serve as representatives of the US Government at all times and advocate US Government policies".
A spokesman for the HHS strongly denied charges that this newly resurrected policy represents any attempt by the Bush administration to exercise political control over the exchange of scientific information, describing it instead as a method "to create accountability" and to ensure that WHO works with appropriate experts. He said that agency heads have not always been aware of the consulting activities of their employees, and that no specific cases prompted the action.
The editors allow as how HHS' denials ring a little hollow in light of this administration's demonstrated willingness to shade the truth when science doesn't quite fit its political plans. I like the editors' suggestions for ways the Bushites can prove their sincerity:
But let us give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt. If this move is meant to provide accountability, let us have some from HHS. First, to dispel any perception of divided loyalties, put a career civil servant, not a political appointee, in charge of the process. Then, to ensure proper public accountability, let HSS put on its website names of those consultants WHO asked for, whether HHS agreed with the requests or approved someone else, and the rationale for the decision. Finally, disclose all of the evidence: how long did the approval process take, and at what cost? The public, whom the administration claims to be protecting, can then decide whether this policy streamlines or obfuscates the process of global scientific consultation, and whether it is a good use of the government's time--and taxpayers' money. We would guess not.