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The Obama Administration lacks transparency, resists oversight

Congressional oversight of Executive Branch agencies is a fundamental element of the checks and balances that prevent abuses of power in any one branch of government. The Obama Administration has resisted that oversight repeatedly for a range of reasons, all nefarious.  Whether it related to Hillary Clinton, IRS official Lois Lerner, or lower-profile influence peddling cases, the resistance to oversight has been grounded in politics, not principle.  

The president and his minions have made a mockery of his promise to be the most transparent administration in history.  

{mosads}A recent example is the request from Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, for materials to shed light on a particularly egregious waste of taxpayer dollars at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At its best, NIH-funded research provides much of the basic science knowledge that spurs medical progress. Although agency’s budget is large, its resources are finite, and given that fewer than 20% of investigator-initiated grants are funded, the support of trivial or wrong-headed projects diverts money from important research. 

In a March 3, 2016 letter to Linda Birnbaum, the director of the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program, Chairman Chaffetz requested documents and communications related to NIEHS funding of research on bisphenol A, better known as BPA.  

The Food and Drug Administration has direct regulatory authority over BPA that comes into contact with food.

The FDA’s website explains that the agency “has performed extensive research and reviewed hundreds of studies about BPA’s safety,” which has led to the conclusion that “current approved uses of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe.”   

Yet despite nearly 50 years of determinations that the chemical is safe, the agency and companies that use BPA continue to come under fire from environmental groups, food activists and other critics. Ironically, much of the ammunition for those complaints comes from academic research studies on BPA that appear to be intended to undermine the FDA, and that are funded by the NIEHS, FDA’s sibling agency in the Department of Health and Human Services.  

Between 2000 and 2014, NIEHS gave $172.7 million in research grants to scientists trying to demonstrate BPA’s adverse effects on humans, in particular as a so-called “endocrine disruptor.” More than 70 percent of the total funding, or $121.5 million, was provided between 2010 and 2014, much of it going to scientists known to have a strong bias against BPA. In a show of astounding hubris, many of these same scientists who make a living feeding at NIEHS’s publicly-funded, junk-science trough, wrote to then-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to complain that FDA’s review of BPA was “flawed scientifically.” 

The NIEHS-funded studies help perpetuate what New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin calls the “single-study syndrome,” in which advocates on hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking, genetic engineering) “latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous—or dubious—the research might be.”  

Consider a study by a Stanford University post-doc which found that “canned food was associated with higher urinary BPA concentrations, and the more canned food consumed, the higher the BPA.” That result supposedly “confirms canned food’s outsized influence on exposure to BPA.” Different kinds of canned food were associated with different BPA concentrations in subjects’ urine, and the “worst offenders (in descending order)” were canned soup, canned pasta, and canned vegetables and fruit.

OK, but what does that mean? We’ve long known BPA is rapidly metabolized (especially when introduced by the oral route) and excreted in the urine and feces, so it makes sense that the more you ingest, the more is found in your urine. But what we really need to know is whether the blood levels are toxic. After all, the first principle of toxicology is that “the dose makes the poison”–in other words, a substance that is toxic at high doses may be completely inconsequential at low doses. Licorice and nutmeg and even water are examples of that.

So, what do we know about the toxicity of BPA at ordinary exposure levels? In addition to the FDA’s findings that BPA is safe as currently used, the European Food Safety Authority has found that “the level of BPA that consumers of all ages are exposed to is well below the estimated level of safe exposure.” 

That puts the study in perspective. It makes one wonder what the point of it was. Never very discriminating and as usual, confusing hazard and risk, the media reported it as though it meant something.  (See this and this, for example.)

Chairman Chaffetz is right to be concerned about NIEHS’ more than $120 million in research grants for questionable studies intended to undermine the regulatory functions and conclusive scientific findings of its sibling, the FDA. But the NIEHS has ignored his March 17 deadline to produce information for the committee’s consideration as part of its oversight obligation.

Tougher oversight of NIH, and NIEHS in particular, is long overdue. Ms. Birnbaum is no beginner when it comes to wasting federal funds. One of us (Mr. Stier) recently criticized her National Toxicology Program for wasting $25 million on research that found that male rats exposed to cell phones for nine hours a day had a slight increase in two types of rare brain cancers. And the other (Dr. Miller) has taken to task the trivial and wasteful studies funded by another NIH component, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

When federal agencies ignore legitimate oversight inquiries concerning activities within their mandate, the Obama administration not only undermines the functioning of checks and balances, but thumbs its nose at the public’s right to know. 

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and heads its Risk Analysis Division. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Hillary Clinton Jason Chaffetz

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