How and what Americans are told about public health emergencies would be controlled by the White House, not by the agencies with the medical or scientific expertise to handle these crises, under a new plan proposed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Under OMB’s “Proposed Bulletin on Peer Review and Information Quality,” which could take effect as early as several months from now, environmental and health studies conducted for or used by the federal government would require White House approval before their release. The plan would also give the White House authority to select which scientists take part in the system known as peer review – the process by which fellow researchers evaluate the validity and reliability of studies before they are published.

The proposal would strip authority from federal health, safety and environmental agencies and give the White House final say over how the public is told about such emergencies as nuclear power plant accidents, outbreaks of mad cow disease or drugs that are found to be harmful.

Critics fear such a move would delay the release of critical public information and politicize the way it is presented. In comments submitted to the OMB, Dr. Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, and Robert Wells, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, described several recent public health emergencies where delays in releasing information could have endangered the public. Among those examples were the emergency termination of a clinical drug trial that showed the drug was dangerous, and the announcement that hormone-replacement therapy was more harmful than beneficial to many post-menopausal women.

Critics also fear the plan would undermine the impartiality of research that guides government policies and regulations. For example, it would open the door for the administration to hand-select industry-friendly scientists to review studies that investigate the safety of chemicals in our food and consumer products, or studies that examine the environmental impact of energy plant emissions. The White House has frequently expressed its commitment to easing regulations for American industries.

In a Jan. 9 letter to the OMB, 20 former top federal agency officials, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, urged the White House to drop its proposal. The letter – signed by former EPA Administrators Carol Browner and Russell Train; former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich; former Assistant Secretaries for Occupational Safety and Health Eula Bingham and Gerard Scannell; and others – warned that the proposal, “in its current form, could damage the federal system for protecting public health and the environment.”

Currently, each federal agency controls peer review of its own projects. The government’s rules to ensure research quality are already less stringent than those used by leading biomedical journals. For example, these journals require authors to disclose who paid for the research; and the journals will only publish studies done under contracts in which the investigators have the right to publish regardless of the results. Federal agencies do not have these requirements, nor do they consistently attempt to find out who paid for the studies.

Far from ensuring the validity of the peer review process, the plan’s critics assert that allowing the White House to control it would only add a layer of politics to what should be a purely scientific process.

Reprinted with permission from