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Stop political tests for US scientists

Security clearance for nonsecret research and a checkup to ensure a compatible (to the administration) political philosophy - are these the precautions US citizens want in selecting scientific advisers?

There was an outcry last spring when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) was caught applying such standards in selecting members of panels for the reviewing of research grants. Secretary John R. Block put a stop to the political checks, saying they were a mistake. But the questionable notion that scientists should be screened for other than competence has not died with his edict.

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To begin with, the USDA still sends the names of prospective advisers to the FBI for a security check, even though no classified research or information is involved. This breaks a longstanding precedent. The department's competitive research grant program is small and new. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, which have been the mainstays of nonsecret civilian research, do not subject grant reviewers to such clearance.

Meanwhile, political clearance of scientists may be creeping into the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Appointment authority over scientific advisers for the Federal Drug Administration is being concentrated in the HHS secretary's office. There have been reports of politically motivated ''suggestions.'' For example, a prominent anti-abortionist (without expert qualifications) was suggested for the advisory panel concerned with contraceptives and abortion drugs.

The HHS secretary's office has denied political screening, saying such ''suggestions'' are not binding. At the drug agency, however, there is reportedly concern that politics will influence the selections.

Certainly it has not been reassuring to have presidential adviser John Schrote stoutly defend the political screening. Having recently served as USDA deputy assistant secretary, Schrote now is with the presidential appointments review office at the White House. He has said he thinks scientific review panels should be balanced and bipartisan. But he was quoted in Science as adding, ''. . . if I have anything to say about it, they're going to have a similar value basis (to the administration).'' He has also said, in regard to scientific advisers, ''. . . we are selecting people who embrace the President's values and agenda.''

This injects a dangerous political bias into US research funding. Few would disagree that the President and his department heads should have advisers with politically compatible views when it comes to questions of policy. But even presidents would be wise to seek a diversity of outlook among those who advise them on matters of scientific fact and technical feasibility.

To go beyond this and seek political conformity at the level of research evaluation is a disservice to the country. Scientists and scientific proposals should be judged on their scientific merits. To do otherwise would erode the integrity and strength of US science and technology.

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