Anti-Science Committee Inquisition Continues

January 23, 2018


Not just banning words. Banning thought.

Silencing Science Tracker:

On January 17, 2018, the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Lamar Smith, and the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment, Andy Biggs, requested that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) investigate possible violations of anti-lobbying rules by Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

In a letter to HHS, Representatives Smith and Biggs expressed concern about an article co-authored by Dr. Birnbaum, in PLOS Biology. The article discussed seven peer-reviewed studies of federal toxics regulation which, according to Dr. Birnbaum and her co-authored, showed that “existing US regulations have not kept pace with scientific advances showing that widely used chemicals cause serious health problems at levels previously assumed to be safe.” They went on to state: “Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.”

According to Representatives Smith and Biggs,  by “encourag[ing] citizens to petition government officials” for policy changes, Birnbaum may be violating anti-lobbying rules. They request that HHS “analyze these concerns to determine whether it is appropriate to launch a full scale review of the situation.” They also request that HHS provide the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology with copies of “all documents and communications regarding the PLOS collection of articles” so it can conduct its own review.


REPUBLICANS ON THE House Science Committee are accusing Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, of lobbying. In letters sent to the Inspector General and acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Reps. Lamar Smith and Andy Biggs wrote that they were “conducting oversight” of Birnbaum’s activity in response to a editorial she wrote in a scientific journal.

Birnbaum’s editorial, which the journal PLOS Biology published in December, addressed the gaps in the regulation of toxic chemicals. Though there are more than 85,000 chemicals approved for use in commerce, she noted in the piece, “U.S. policy has not accounted for evidence that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless.”

Birnbaum called for more research on the risks posed by chemicals and, in the sentence that the representatives appear to consider lobbying, noted that “closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens — both scientists and non-scientists — work to ensure that our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.”

A toxicologist who has headed NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program since 2009, Birnbaum received no funding for writing the editorial, as she notes in the piece, nor does she recommend any specific policy, piece of legislation, or action in it beyond being engaged citizens.

Nevertheless, Biggs and Smith, who have both received money from Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, and other companies that have a financial interest in limiting research on the environmental effects of chemicals, noted that their “committee suspects this activity may be a violation of the anti-lobbying act.” The two Republican members of Congress also called on the DHHS Inspector General to analyze their concerns so that he might “launch a full-scale review of the situation.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists’s Andrew Rosenberg dismissed the representatives’ letters as “codswallop.”

“I don’t see how in any sense it is lobbying,” Rosenberg said of Birnbaum’s editorial. “Science itself is not lobbying. It is reporting on evidence.” A spokesperson for the NIEHS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, said that Birnbaum was unavailable for comment because of the government shutdown.

This isn’t the first time the House Science Committee has gone after Birnbaum for bringing attention to environmental science that raises the need for increased regulation. In 2013, then-committee Chairs Larry Bucshon and Paul Broun, expressed outrage about a 2012 article, in which she described the harms of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

“The proliferation of inadequately tested chemicals in commerce may be contributing to the skyrocketing rates of disease,” Birnbaum wrote in that paper. The idea that low doses of chemicals are causing widespread health effects was by then already widely accepted by independent scientists and has since been echoed by the United Nations Environmental Program and the European Commission.

But industry groups and manufacturers of chemicals have continually challenged endocrine disruption and other science showing the danger of chemicals. And Smith, who became chair of the House Science Committee in 2013, has taken their side in the fight. The Texas representative, who has also aggressively attacked climate science and climate scientists, has promoted legislation that would essentially replace independent scientists with industry representatives on Environmental Protection Agency advisory boards; the EPA has since implemented that policy. In November, Smith wrote another letter to DHHS, this one questioning the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s 2015 evaluation of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. (IARC responded to his charges earlier this month.)




4 Responses to “Anti-Science Committee Inquisition Continues”

  1. Lionel Smith Says:

    Demonstrates how dangerous lawyers “educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought” (as Peter Medawar put it) can be.

    Lamar should study the book on which this talk is based:

    and this follow up:

    Although I suspect he has already been damaged in some way preventing him using rational thought.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The book on which the talk is based is a must read for everyone. It resides on my bookshelf (found it in a used book store for $1.50) along with the terrific book by it’s third author, Diane Dumanoski.

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