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House Science Committee Wants to Investigate a Government Scientist for Doing Science

REPUBLICANS ON THE House Science Committee are accusing Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, of lobbying. In letters sent to the Inspector General and acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Reps. Lamar Smith and Andy Biggs wrote that they were “conducting oversight” of Birnbaum’s activity in response to a editorial she wrote in a scientific journal.

Birnbaum’s editorial, which the journal PLOS Biology published in December, addressed the gaps in the regulation of toxic chemicals. Though there are more than 85,000 chemicals approved for use in commerce, she noted in the piece, “U.S. policy has not accounted for evidence that chemicals in widespread use can cause cancer and other chronic diseases, damage reproductive systems, and harm developing brains at low levels of exposure once believed to be harmless.”

Birnbaum called for more research on the risks posed by chemicals and, in the sentence that the representatives appear to consider lobbying, noted that “closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens — both scientists and non-scientists — work to ensure that our government officials pass health-protective policies based on the best available scientific evidence.”

A toxicologist who has headed NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program since 2009, Birnbaum received no funding for writing the editorial, as she notes in the piece, nor does she recommend any specific policy, piece of legislation, or action in it beyond being engaged citizens.

Nevertheless, Biggs and Smith, who have both received money from Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, and other companies that have a financial interest in limiting research on the environmental effects of chemicals, noted that their “committee suspects this activity may be a violation of the anti-lobbying act.” The two Republican members of Congress also called on the DHHS Inspector General to analyze their concerns so that he might “launch a full-scale review of the situation.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists’s Andrew Rosenberg dismissed the representatives’ letters as “codswallop.”

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