Catherine Clabby

News reporter and editor. Duke University journalism faculty. Co-edit 9th Street Journal at Duke Reporters' Lab. Alum reporter @ North Carol

Jan 24, 2018
1 min read

Two conservative leaders of the U.S. House science committee claim one of North Carolina’s most prominent scientists may have violated federal anti-lobbying rules in an academic journal editorial.

That’s true, they say, even though the article she co-wrote did not push for passage of legislation.

In letters to the Inspector General and acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Republican Congressmen Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ), spell out their dissatisfaction with Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

NIEHS leader Linda Birnbaum. Image courtesy: NIEHS

Birnbaum co-wrote “Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health,“ published last month by Public Library of Science (PLOS) Biology. It accompanied a collection of articles by scientists exploring the gaps between research evidence and U.S. policies regulating chemicals.

“Closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies,” the editorial states.

That may be enough to violate both the Anti-Lobbying Act and HHS ethics guidelines banning executive branch employees from lobbying activities, said Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Biggs, who leads its environment subcommittee.

Through a spokeswoman Tuesday, Birnbaum, who has been attacked by Republican members of the House science committee before, characterized the writing differently.

“The editorial reminds us that health policy needs to be updated as research provides us with new information,” her statement said. “It simply acknowledges the fact that public opinion plays a role in the policymaking process.”

Veteran researcher, institute director

A highly regarded toxicologist and a longtime federal scientist, Birnbaum has been director of NIEHS since 2009. The institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, funds science that explores ways that environmental exposures, to industrial chemicals and many more things, may harm human health.

NIEHS, whose budget is $681 million, does not create federal environmental policy at its headquarters in Research Triangle Park in central North Carolina. The research it funds at many different locations influences policy at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere.

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R). Official Congressional portrait.

In their letter to HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson, Smith and Biggs ask his office to assess whether Birnbaum’s writing merits a “full-scale” review. “She is prohibited to pressure citizens to contact their government representatives to favor or oppose any policy, even before the introduction of an actual piece of legislation,” they wrote of Birnbaum.

Co-written with PLOS Biology senior editor Liza Gross, the editorial last month appeared with “Challenges in Environmental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations.” The journal’s “special collection” is a series of peer-reviewed commentaries that explores the divides between scientific evidence and environmental policy.

Birnbaum advised PLOS Biology on topics and authors for the series. Among other topics, the commentaries considered “regulatory flaws that allow hazardous chemicals to contaminate the environment, technical challenges in assessing risks from short-lived compounds and from multiple, simultaneous exposures; and the failure to ban chemicals even in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm.”

The series notes, among other things, that in the past three decades evidence has grown that some chemicals can have ill effects at doses once considered harmless.

Congressional committee “probe”

Smith, the House science committee chairman who has presided over a number of controversial bills over the past five years, is leaving Congress this year after three decades. He has been criticized frequently by Union of Concerned Scientists, in part because of his attacks on federal scientists.

Biggs was named chairman of the committee’s environment subcommittee during his freshman year on Capitol Hill last year.

NIEHS research sometimes gets challenged by industries that oppose its findings and subsequent environmental regulation. Smith and Biggs are both anti-regulation legislators, as assessed by the Americans for Prosperity.

The conservative political advocacy group funded by brothers David H. Koch and Charles Koch, scores voting by each legislator on “economic freedom” topics at 100 percent.

Thea McDonald, the House committee communications director, described scrutiny of Birnbaum’s writing a “probe.”

She compared it to efforts by Smith that contributed to a 2015 Government Accountability Office finding that the EPA circulated “covert” propaganda and violated federal provisions with social media messaging supporting for President Obama’s Waters of the United States rules.

Lamar and Biggs requested a reply from Levinson by the end of this month.

The last time Republican members of the House science committee complained about Birnbaum was 2013 when they sent a letter to the NIH director Francis Collins complaining about her journal article “When environmental chemicals act like uncontrolled medicine” in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Committee members questioned the validity of some of her statements in a review of cancer-causing chemicals, charging some might be opinion more than fact.

Committee members wrote Collins months later to express dissatisfaction with the response from NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak.