Representatives of scientific interests may not be representative
BY ALEX LAVOIE AND RICHARD KELLEY
The art of lobbying is under reexamination. In recent months campaign reform issues, congressional ethics scandals, and criminal lobbyists like Jack Abramoff have brought a practice with which most Americans are unfamiliar to the forefront of the public eye. The goal of lobbying is to convince the government in a legal manner to adopt policies supported by a particular interest group. Scientific lobbying in particular is a rising star among many prominent lobbying firms and the groups they represent. Scientists rely on lobbying to gain funding for important studies and support for laws that aid their cause. In fact, biological research and health policy lobbyists, who serve as middlemen between scientific experts and legislators, may do more to shape federal health policies than any other group. Though the lobbying process is an important way to educate Congress about scientific issues and engage in dialogue about national priorities, lobbyists may not always fairly represent the needs and desires of the country.
What's going on in Congress?
Over the past decade, the power of lobbyists has been on the rise. Over $2 billion a year is spent by special interests ranging from oil companies to orchestras. From 1999 to 2004, the amount spent on federal lobbying increased by 40 percent and the number of federal lobbyists has grown from 16,000 in 2000 to over 35,000 in 2005. This means that last year there were about 65 lobbyists for every one member of Congress.
Lobbying in science is no exception. Medical industries have designated lobbyists for nurses, cancer research, AIDS, stem cell research, and pharmaceuticals, among other things. Almost any scientific field one can imagine has someone fighting for them on Capitol Hill. In an interview with the HPR, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a nurse herself before running for Congress, stated her belief that this increase in lobbying is for good reason: "Lobbying can have a positive impact in persuading Congress to provide additional funding for research." While most would agree that the goals of scientific interest groups are important, questions remain about which research gets funded and at what expense.
Perhaps the most publicized special interest in science is the pharmaceutical industry. The Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America employs a large lobbying staff, makes generous political contributions, and filters enormous funds into public advertising campaigns. As of 2004, the pharmaceutical industry employed 1,291 lobbyists in Washington, DC, more than any other industry. In 2002, Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major innovator in cancer drugs and other medications, donated over $1.5 million dollars of pharmaceutical industry money to political candidates. With so much money changing hands, it is no surprise that accusations arise that such companies influence policies at the expense of consumers. In recent years the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied for the prescription drug benefit law that barred negotiations of drug prices that might have lowered prices, and spent $128 million in 2004 to advocate for tax breaks. Pharmaceutical interests have also recently lobbied to weaken FDA enforcement and strengthen patent protections.
It is the stem cell research lobby that has arguably caused the greatest controversy. The federal government budgeted $38 million this year for embryonic stem cell research, and an even greater amount to adult and animal stem cell research. This, however, was a decrease Continued from Page 9
in funding from previous years, indicative perhaps of strong convictions against embryonic stem cell research within the Bush administration. Dale Carleson, chief communications officer for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, said in an interview with that HPR that "a change in federal policy severely limits stem cell research," giving scientists a strong incentive to try to influence the policy-making process. Carleson's California Institute of Regenerative Medicine is the state government agency responsible for managing the three billion dollar investment in stem cell research, a result of Proposition 71, passed by the California Legislature in 2004 after heavy lobbying from interest groups. Government funding is, according to Carleson, "essential, especially to basic and preclinical research. Between the government and private foundations, most of them devoted to a specific disease, that's the life blood of stem cell research." Without funding from the government, stem cell research would suffer greatly, and without information and encouragement from lobbyists, the government might never support research in the first place.
Voice of the People?
The great costs of engaging professional lobbyists are prohibitive to many non-profit or low-profit interests who want to express their voice in Congress. Consequently, the lobbying industry skews representation of the public interest towards those industries that can pay. Capps agreed with this assessment, saying that, "unfortunately, [the lobbying] process can be abused when certain lobbyists are given exclusive access to elected officials and their staffs while other stakeholders, such as unpaid citizen activists, are excluded." Additionally, most powerful lobbying groups contribute large amounts of money to Political Action Committees, a practice that many organizations simply cannot afford.
Even for members of Congress who wish to remain fair, the lobbyist landscape in Washington is difficult to navigate. Not only is it difficult for members to resist the temptation of financially supportive interest groups, but members must also balance national interest against that of their own constituents. Speaking to the HPR, former Senator David Durenberger (R-Minn.), described this lobbying dilemma: "It is often difficult to sort out the national interest from the constituent interest, the latter usually not being as well-informed or as `invested' as I need to be as a policy-maker." And with lobbyists giving congressmen much of their scientific information, unbiased advice is hard to come by.
Lobbying is and will continue to be a major force in disseminating crucial information from the scientific community to members of Congress. While this role cannot be underestimated in the legislative process, the privatization of the process comes at the cost of fairly representing the true views of society. While the system is imperfect, the tradeoff may be necessary one for the continued success of medicine and biological research in the United States.
Rodrigo González Fernández
DIPLOMADO EN RESPONSABILIDAD
SOCIAL EMPRESARIAL DE LA ONU
Renato Sánchez 3586