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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Academy of Sciences

Air Date: Week of

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The National Academy of Sciences provides influential scientific information and advice to the federal government. Daniel Greenberg, journalist and author of the book Science, Money and Politics, discusses the background of NAS and its role in the nation’s health and science policy with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Every day, it seems, science and technology challenge the limits of public policy: cloning, stem cell research, energy efficiency for cars. And there with the answers for the makers of public policy in the U.S. is, most often, the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences is arguably the nation's most influential body of science advisors, though few of us know just how the Academy is chosen and how it works. But one man who does is Washington journalist Daniel Greenberg, who has recently written "Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion". He joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth, Mr. Greenberg.

GREENBERG: Thank you, glad to be with you.

CURWOOD: So, let's start at the beginning. Just who makes up the National Academy of Sciences?

GREENBERG: Well, that's sort of a mysterious subject. The academy is a pretty transparent organization today, compared to what it used to be. It used to operate pretty much behind closed doors. It consists now of something close to 2,000 members--that's the Academy of Sciences. Every year they elect about 70 more to replace retirees and people who have died. The members elect the new members. On what basis they choose them it's very hard to say, but the generally understood basis is that these are people who have made original contributions to basic science.

CURWOOD: Why was it formed?

GREENBERG: It was formed by President Lincoln, in 1863, to provide scientific and technical advice to the federal government, and it has existed ever since then with that mandate in its charter. Itís chartered by the Congress. Today, there are many, many other organizations that provide scientific and technical advice to the federal government: the Rand Corporation for example, many universities, but the National Academy of Science considers itself to be the premier think tank, the special institution that advises the federal government.

CURWOOD: How are topics for research chosen?

GREENBERG: Most of its money and most of its activities are for work that's brought to it by the federal government by federal agencies, and just about every federal agency finds that the National Academy of Sciences is a very useful organization. That's one track on which they operate. The other is, the academy, on its own, using its own funds--it has some endowment funds and it gets some money from private foundations--will take up particular subjects, such as the need for science advice in the State Department. They recently issued a report about technology education, saying that the schools should stress this, all the way from kindergarten through graduate school; that American young people don't know enough about the role of technology in society.

CURWOOD: Now, let's look at one specific issue that the National Academy of Sciences is weighing in on. President George Bush came into office and was not terribly pleased with some of President Clinton's regulations. One of those was a new standard for arsenic in drinking water. So Mr. Bush asked the Academy of Sciences to review the science behind the arsenic standards. How did the academy deal with this request?

GREENBERG: The Academy went back and reviewed the original study, and then it looked to see if there was any additional data that might be taken into consideration, and what it essentially did was reaffirm the original finding: that the parts per billion of arsenic in the water should be lowered substantially. I don't think the administration was particularly happy with this finding, but it would have been in a very embarrassing position if it decided to ignore what the academy was saying. And I think that, basically, it came around to the academy position.

CURWOOD: How did the academy report end up influencing the president's decision about arsenic?

GREENBERG: That's difficult to say, but the academy has a quality and a tool that I don't think gets sufficient recognition. And that is the power of embarrassment. Here you have the best scientists, who have no stake in the issue--these aren't people who own waterworks or are concerned with the economics of water or anything of the sort. They're simply saying such and such a level of arsenic in the water supply poses health problems. The academy doesn't conduct any research of its own. What it simply does is goes back to research that's already been conducted, does a literature search, looks at what other scientists have found along the way, and they will say, the weight of evidence is such and such, and establishes that a particular level of arsenic in the water will be injurious to the health of the American people.

Now, a president kind of ignores that at his peril, because he can be so easily attacked as a very vulnerable flank, once the academy has stated its opinion, particularly on a health issue, but also on many other issues.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the history of the National Academy of Sciences and accusations of bias by its committees.

GREENBERG: There were many accusations, I recall, back in the sixties and seventies, about bias on committees: that they were loaded with people from industry, that they really didn't look for diversity of opinions or expertise but were just trying to fulfill the expectations of people who were seeking studies. The academy responded to that, I think, by introducing a great deal of openness into its operations. It announces beforehand who are the members of the committees. They are required to reveal conflicts of interest. It publishes a vast amount. You can go on the web and find thousands of academy documents.

But I think that, by and large, the academy today is regarded as a very useful tool of government. If a scientific or technical issue comes up that has deep political significance to it, well, like stem cell research, cloning and things of that sort, they just produced on cloning the other day, people pay attention to it because they figure it's informed, it's fair, it's objective. They don't have any particular axe to grind except the furtherance of scientific research. And it's a trustworthy institution.

CURWOOD: Daniel Greenberg covers science and politics, recently wrote a book entitled, ìScience, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosionî. Thanks for speaking with me today.

GREENBERG: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: XTC, "The Wheel and the Maypole," HOMEGROWN (TVT-2001)]



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