Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Accountability, Transparency, Scientists and Government

The FDA has promulgated a series of Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) based on the proprietary review of scientists in the National Academies. The justification for these RDA values are not even available at a large institution such as Ohio State University. Because of this opacity, a large number of people have gravitated to interesting or promising parascientific ideas about the role of vitamins in nutrition. For example, many question the food pyramid's focus on carbohydrates. (Westin A Price) Others argue that the RDA for Vitamin C should be increased by a factor of 10. (Linus Pauling) Or that many health problems can be explained by a deficiency in, for example, iodine. Other groups question whether too much cholesterol is bad, whether too much salt is unhealthy. Much of the creative critiques of establishment medicine is based on rigorous research and reasonably open communication, although usually not entirely peer-reviewed. This gray literature is, however, limited compared to scientific publications. Yet when the scientific process is not transparent, it looses the inherent advantage of demonstrative accountability.

In 1998 Congress broadened the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to specify that all government funded science should be shared and freely available to the public. Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of Science, Technology, and Policy at Harvard University, has recently written an excellent primer in the May 7 2010 issue of Science on her perspective of how climate science measures up; "Policy Forum: Science and Society: Testing Time for Climate Science."

She describes the "Three-Body Problem" as consisting of individuals, reliable bodies of knowledge, and procedures. The individual scientist or expert must be held to high standards of honesty and integrity. In science, peer review partly serves this purpose. Reliable bodies of knowledge create scientific knowledge. Scientific advisory committees translate scientific findings into policy-relevant forms: individual members' impartiality and sound judgment is critical. Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) (Public Law 92–463), scientific advisory committees must be fairly balanced and, in the absence of special circumstances, committee meetings and records are presumed to be open to the public.

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