Raiding the Academy

Tenuous arguments and sensationalism mark this "study" of the National Academy of Sciences.


The Brain Bank of America, by Phillip M. Boffey, with an introduction by Ralph Nader, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975, 312 pp., $10.95

In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of American scientists organized a National Academy to provide the federal government with reliable scientific advice. Most of the government's operating agencies have created their own in-house scientific research establishments since that time, but the National Academy of Sciences remains the preeminent source of authoritative scientific opinion for Congress, the courts, and federal regulatory agencies.

When scientific issues arise in regulatory controversies, the courts and regulatory boards tend to accept the reports of the Academy as definitive. There is no statutory obligation for them to do so, as the Academy is a private organization, albeit one with a federal charter, like the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross. The Academy's opinions are nevertheless seldom questioned, largely because of the enormous prestige of its members: election to the Academy is the ultimate accolade American scientists can bestow on their colleagues.

The reports of experts selected by that pantheon are seldom challenged, and even more seldom challenged successfully. Even its critics refer to the National Academy as "the Supreme Court of science." And while scientific knowledge changes much faster than legal precedent, instances of an Academy report proving to be in error and having to be reversed are as rare as, if not rarer than, reversed opinions from the Supreme Court.

When regulatory bureaucrats invoke specious "scientific" arguments to expand their power, it often falls to the National Academy of Sciences to point out that the alleged rationale for more stringent regulation is so much bunk. With the rise of the Nader organization as America's leading advocate of "more and better" regulation, it was only a matter of time before the Academy was Raided. An additional motive was provided by Nader's personal outlook on applicable science. In the introduction to The Brain Bank of America, Nader writes, quite seriously, that "more often than not, inventions work against the consumer." There is probably no way to disabuse Nader of that notion short of making him ride from Los Angeles to Washington on horseback.

Given the views of his leader, Boffey's direction is also predictable. The only surprise, considering the amount of dirt the Raiders usually manage to dig up, is how little evidence Boffey found for his arguments. There is, in this book, not one single instance of an Academy report being wrong in its facts. The most Boffey can find to object to is the makeup and financing of Academy committees.

The scientists who serve on Academy committees work without pay. The reasons why they are willing to do so vary; they include such factors as the prestige of Academy-recognized expert status; a chance—for nonmembers—to get to know members of the Academy and to lobby for membership; a chance to promote one's own views to other experts; and, however unpopular such motivation might be these days, a genuine desire to do one's share for the public good. Nevertheless, NAS committees have expenses: staff and secretarial salaries, plane tickets, postage costs, and printing charges add up, and somebody has to pay them.


Current NAS studies are paid for by interested government agencies, industrial associations, foundations, and the like. The idea is that anyone who wants an Academy report on record has to pay the costs. Boffey argues that this system puts the National Academy in a mercenary relationship with those who pay for its studies. The argument is that if the Academy committees did not favor the interests of the funding parties, no one would be willing to pay for them. Boffey's evidence consists of cases in which the interests of those who funded the studies were served by the resulting reports.

Can one conclude, from the fact that the results of Academy studies tend to favor the interests of those who paid for them, that these reports were not the best possible summaries of known scientific fact? Hardly. There is at least one alternative explanation: an industry association may pay for a study because it was advised, by its own scientists and by qualified consultants, that the scientific facts are in its favor, and the Academy can be expected to say so. Every free-market provider of expertise, from the National Academy of Sciences to a private consultant testifying in a court or arbitration case, knows that his value depends on his reputation. And this reputation is lost, forever, if even one instance of fudging data in a client's favor can be discovered by experts working for the other side. An expert is paid for being honest as well as knowledgeable. On a free market, in order to make money by selling one's opinion, one must make sure that this opinion is not for sale.

If Boffey's perception of the "problem" of funding for Academy studies reveals, at best, an ignorance of basic economics, his "solution" can only be described as naive—and even that takes a lot of charity. He recommends that NAS studies be funded by congressional appropriations. "Although individual Congressional committees often have strong biases on an issue, Congress as a whole includes so many conflicting viewpoints that it is not apt to pressure the Academy to reach a particular verdict." Taken to its conclusion, Boffey's statement implies that no piece of legislation passed by Congress as a whole is likely to promote any particular special interest! The frightening thing is that Boffey may well believe exactly that.


The makeup of the Academy's committees is Boffey's other target, and it is here that his Nader's Raider arsenal of private-detective techniques is brought to bear. In case after case, Boffey manages to create the impression that NAS panel members were associated with the companies the safety of whose products was at issue. When you cut through the sensationalism of the revelations, though, it is the tenuousness of these "associations" that seem amazing.

Example: One of the members of the NAS panel on the drug MSG was a co-founder of a commercial laboratory. Three years before the MSG study, that laboratory had been hired by an MSG producer to study the effects of MSG on reproduction in rats. Another member of that seven-person panel once carried out a study of the use of cow's milk for infant formulas. The study had nothing to do with MSG, but it was sponsored by a baby-food company that, like all baby-food companies at the time, was using MSG. Another two members of the panel were employed by Dow and DuPont, and while these companies never made MSG, Boffey writes that their employees "might be suspected of having an industrial viewpoint on the general question of chemical additives." (Note the language: MSG is given the sinister-sounding label of "chemical additive," conveniently ignoring the fact that we human beings are also made up of chemicals and that glutamates occur naturally in almost all foods derived from plants or animals.) With a majority like this, it's no surprise the panel failed to recommend the banning of this evil chemical, is it now?

In other cases, Boffey objects to panel members who had served as consultants for companies interested in the outcome of NAS studies or, when this is not enough, notes that some had worked in industry before getting their current college jobs. In his critique of the pesticide panel, Boffey notes that one of the members had received grant support from the Agriculture Department, while five others had (unspecified) "backgrounds in agricultural production." Such data is missing from the description of some NAS panels criticized by Boffey, possibly because the evidence would not have served Boffey's argument in those cases.

Boffey's unstated assumption is that if a scientist's work is ever of sufficiently worldly importance to earn her or him industrial support or consulting assignments, then the scientist is henceforth to be considered unworthy and tainted by mammon. My own impression is different. If a scientist works in an area of industrial importance, yet never received a consulting commission or industrial support, it's probably because he's an incompetent whose work isn't any good. And vice versa: successful companies don't throw money away supporting incompetents. If NAS panels indeed include a number of successful industrial consultants, then they are probably made up of impressively competent people. Conversely, it's next to impossible to find a group of competent specialists in any applicable field without finding that most of them have had some industrial connections or support.

It might be appropriate, at this point, to give my own interpretation of the data presented by Boffey. I believe that the NAS is aware of the possibility of a proindustry bias in experts who have industry connections, and since one cannot put together a competent panel without them, it has devised an informal but effective procedure for preventing possible bias from affecting its reports. Every panel listed by Boffey includes a member who can be identified as a "watchdog." Suppose, for example, that a panel is assembled to examine the effects of agricultural chemicals on plant life in adjoining wilderness areas. The experts on the panel will tend to be agricultural scientists with industrial connections. The watchdog, then, will be an academic botanist with a known anti-industrial bias. He or she will be drawn from a field distant enough to have no insider preconceptions, yet close enough to understand all the arguments and examine the evidence independently. And the watchdog will be eminent. Where the other members might be industrial employees or assistant professors at state colleges of agriculture, the watchdog will tend to be a full professor at a prestigious university. Where the others might be too young to have been considered for Academy membership, the watchdog will be a member of NAS—and will have unquestioned personal access to the NAS president, whose signature is needed before any Academy report can be released. Being in a minority, the watchdog will not be able to impose his bias on the committee—but will have sufficient influence to make sure that the opposite bias will not color the report either.

Boffey's "solution" to "the problem of industrial bias" is also based on the view that purity from the taint of industrial associations is more important than competence: "Academy committees which include industry scientists should counterbalance them with qualified scientists from citizen, consumer, and public interest groups." The problem, of course, is in the relative qualifications of those scientists. Industry hires scientists to solve real problems and obtain honest opinion: an industrial scientist who tells his company that a dangerous practice is safe will probably find himself without a job once his company gets hit with a damage suit.

With very few exceptions, the scientists who work for "public interest" groups are hired for very different reasons. Their duty is to invent scientifically plausible arguments for predetermined political positions of their groups; they are more likely to be fired for opinions contrary to their employers' preconceptions than for being wrong. Few of the people willing to work in such environments have any credible scientific qualifications; none can show credentials comparable to those of industry scientists found on NAS committees. The inclusion of "public interest scientists" would destroy the foundations of the Academy's scientific prestige. Perhaps the elimination of NAS as a bulwark against phony, political "science" is precisely what Boffey and Nader have in mind.


The inanity of Boffey's critique of the NAS does not mean that the Academy is infallible or that it ought to exempt from criticism. A libertarian reader will find a lot to denounce in the NAS reports summarized by Boffey—although for the most part it will be precisely those aspects of the Academy's judgment of which Boffey approves. Like most contemporary institutions, the National Academy of Sciences tends to assume that regulation necessarily means government regulation. Thus, if the scientific rationale for a proposed regulation is valid—as is sometimes the case—the Academy does not hesitate to call for government action without examining voluntary alternatives.

As the readers of REASON may be assumed to know, the free market abounds in economic regulating forces. Few people will knowingly buy products that endanger their lives or patronize a business that endangers their common environment. The real issue is not regulation or nothing but regulation by the market versus regulation by bureaucrats. NAS reports automatically call for government action in cases where any regulation appears to be justified. In an otherwise free society, this would put the NAS among the enemies of freedom. Only in the actual contemporary atmosphere of pervasive government intrusion into every aspect of human life could an organization such as the NAS serve liberty, by knocking out pseudoscientific arguments for government actions that a free society would reject out of hand.

This feature of the Academy's actions is a direct result of its supposedly apolitical commitment to value-free scientific expertise. In the real world, there can be no apolitical institutions; an attempt to escape from political responsibility automatically leads an institution into the defense of whatever political assumptions are taken for granted by society at large. Value-free expertise means, in practice, expertise in the service of the status quo. This fact makes the National Academy of Sciences a conservative institution. Such institutions change as the status quo changes; this guarantees their long-term irrelevance. If the common assumptions of American political life continue to change in a statist direction, the Academy will change along lines suggested by Boffey; if the libertarian movement turns these assumptions around, then the Academy, like all voluntary social institutions, will find itself on the side of freedom. In either case, defending these institutions—or attacking them—will make no difference other than to drain useful effort away from more effective pursuits in the cause of liberty.

Dr. Reed has degrees in electrical engineering and biology and a Ph.D. in mathematical and experimental psychology. He is currently working in the Mathematical Psychology Laboratory of Rockefeller University, conducting research in memory.