Political test may apply to health research

STATE: Statement means researchers may have to follow policy, not facts.

June 25, 2011 

Another department in the Parnell administration is applying a political and policy test to the work that its scientists and researchers are permitted to do.

This time, the rule affects public health and governs manuscripts, data presentations and "ideas" that could lead to publications. The rule was issued June 10 as an internal policy and procedure by Dr. Ward Hurlburt, the state's director of public health and its chief medical officer.

The president of the state chapter for one medical specialty -- pediatrics -- said she's concerned the policy will restrict research into important public health subjects that run counter to "the political winds." And a larger professional group, the Alaska State Medical Association, plans to review the policy at its next board meeting in July, according to its incoming president, Dr. Mary Ann Foland.

Hurlburt said the rule was designed to improve the quality of the division's publications and research, not censor them. But he also acknowledged "the reality" that the Parnell administration's social-conservative policies on some issues, such as its opposition to abortion, could influence the work of his department.

A similar rule was issued last year for biologists and other scientists who work for the Department of Fish and Game. That rule led to the expulsion in April of two state scientists from a federal endangered species panel attempting to restore the depleted population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet. The scientists were removed over concerns that they could no longer work objectively, since state policy asserts Cook Inlet belugas aren't facing extinction.

The fish and game rule requires scientists to adhere to established policy if they work outside the department, such as serving on a panel or reviewing an article for publication in a scientific journal. It says that internal debates within the department should remain open.

The public health rule governs what the department itself will publish or study. It requires review of such material, even at the conceptual or idea stage, for "scientific accuracy as well as political and policy appropriateness."

The reviews would be conducted by the nine section chiefs within the division along with deputy directors and the division's top officials. Hurlburt or epidemiology chief Joe McLaughlin would have final authority to approve or reject a proposal.

HEALTHY FOODS

While many pronouncements of the division are hardly controversial -- the deputy director who crafted the June 10 publications rule is working on another that only healthy foods can be served at the agency's meetings -- it sometimes rubs up against hot-button social issues.

Hurlburt's predecessor, Beverly Wooley, was fired in 2009 by Gov. Sarah Palin following a dispute over legislation requiring parental notification for teen abortions. Wooley said at the time that she would testify that Palin supported notification. But she said she would also testify that research in states with notification requirements showed that girls there tended to get riskier and more expensive abortions later in their pregnancy.

The possibility that the June 10 department rule would allow politics to interfere with public health "is a bit disturbing," said Dr. Jodyne Butto, president of the Alaska chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Scientific data doesn't always align itself with the political winds," Butto said. "Particularly in terms of pediatrics, this is very concerning, in that, depending on the milieu of the time, someone's agenda can actually have a deleterious effect if scientific data and research is essentially squashed."

Using a hypothetical example, she said, suppose a risk survey of adolescents found they were having unprotected sex in increasing numbers, but state policy only favored promoting sexual abstinence. Would that mean, she wondered, that the state public health department couldn't encourage condom use to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases?

Hurlburt, who was appointed by Parnell to run the division in September 2009, said that wasn't why he pushed for the new policy.

"I'm 75 years old now and everywhere I've ever worked, it's totally normal to do it," he said of creating publication policies. The main point of the policy was to ensure that published reports were reviewed for accuracy and that elected officials like the governor weren't embarrassed by public health recommendations that contradicted state policy.

But Hurlburt acknowledged that the use of the term "political" twice in the June 10 policy statement had nothing to do with assuring scientific accuracy.

"It's probably not a well chosen word," he said, though he also said it wasn't a mistake. He said the term had "more to do with the relations with other agencies that we cooperate with" than with the politics of governing or of responding to constituencies.

SOME CONCERN

Jennifer Meyer, president of the Alaska Public Health Association and a former public health nurse, said she's heard concern about the June 10 policy from some public health professionals, though her board hasn't yet been asked to review it.

"Just looking a the language of the policy I could see how some might see some concern there," she said. "The spin could go either way. We definitely want science to inform practice. However, we don't want politics to limit science or information."

Because the state "collects data on everything," it's important that access to that information not be restricted because of politics, she said.

"We're all trying to figure out what are the causes of ill health in the state. If information was limited -- I'm guessing that that information might have to do with minors, race, abortion, those types of issues -- it's a concern," she said.

The author of the June 10 policy, deputy public health director Kerre Fisher, said it was just a matter of ticking off the to-do list that greeted her when she took the position in August 2009.

"There was nothing that went wrong, nothing that went particularly right, there was no catalyst -- it was just time to get this one off my desk," Fisher said. "In organizations, there needs to be written policies and procedures for consistency sake."

Dr. Jay Butler, the state's former chief medical officer, said he understands the need for internal review of publications. "It's a good concept," said Butler, who resigned his post in 2009 rather than accept Palin's appointment to replace Wooley. "The thing that's a little surprising is the term 'political.'"

Is it about relationships with other organizations? he wondered. Or would it be something like the battles that likely raged a generation ago in his home state, North Carolina, between health officials who wanted to curb smoking and agriculture officials who wanted to promote tobacco farming?

Even more vague, he said, is the intention behind the section of the June 10 policy that says that an idea "at the concept stage" could be reviewed if it involved "significant political or policy implications."

"The policy as written has some issues that clearly need some clarification," Butler said.

Questioned about the June 10 policy after a speech Wednesday, Gov. Parnell said he hadn't seen it and asked a reporter for a copy to review.

"But I'll tell you what -- our decisions are going to be based on good science," Parnell said. "That's a part of the process, whether it's health or whether it's fish and game."

Parnell said he'd get back in touch after reviewing the policy, but his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said Friday that Parnell wouldn't comment further.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service