Did your mother ever say things to you like that when you were growing up?
My mother did.
I couldn't help thinking of my mother's admonition when I saw the headline from the July 14, 2012 issue of The New York Times "Vast F.D.A. Effort Tracked E-Mails of its Scientists." The headline does a good job of explaining what happened, but I thought I'd let the lead paragraph give you a little flavor of the piece.
"A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists used an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists, and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show."
Let that swirl around in your brain for a moment. Some F.D.A. official says to himself, "I don't think those scientists can be trusted. Let's track their e-mails." The spy software used captured screen images from government laptops of five scientists, tracked their keystrokes, intercepted personal e-mails, copied documents from their personal thumb drives, and even followed messages as they were being composed.
The article also states, "many Congressional staff members regarded as sympathetic to the scientists each got their own files containing all their e-mails to and from the whistle-blowers." Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland was listed as No. 14 on the F. D. A. surveillance list. A former staff member to Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican was also on the list.
The program grew out of a dispute that several scientists had regarding what the scientists claim were faulty review procedures which led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies. The concern was that patients were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Four of these scientists were fired from the F. D. A.
I spend time with this story because I think it illustrates so much of what is going wrong in science today, particularly in those institutions which are supposed to be protecting the country's health. The question shouldn't be, what are scientists telling members of Congress about the safety of these devices, but whether those concerns are valid.
I share President Lincoln's conviction that if you give people the facts, most of the time they'll come to the correct conclusion. I have no idea whether the medical devices approved by the F. D. A. are safe. However, I do believe that the effort to squelch discussion of the issue is not in anybody's best interest.
In my position as a writer for Age of Autism I seek out stories which I believe will help our community. Often that involves reading recently published scientific or medical articles and trying to learn more from the researchers involved. It is common that these researchers don't want to be quoted, or to share publicly their suspicions about what is really at stake. And I honor their requests. While I believe this is an appropriate courtesy I worry the greater public interest is not being served.
I have heard terrible stories about the cost of searching for the truth, requests from superiors to go no further, and of being frozen out of previously generous research grants, among other acts of oppression. These attempts at repression of honest inquiry are usually subtle, generally having to do with professional prestige or advancement. What I hear from these researchers often doesn't sound like science, but of some corrupt oligarchy trying to protect its power.
In my efforts to help my community I have also become aware that the problems we face are not unique. Other disease communities find similar obstacles placed in their way, as The New York Times story clearly shows. Who among us, going into a mammogram or colonoscopy, wouldn't want to know if we were being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation? It almost seems absurd that one has to defend the right of government scientists to voice their concerns about dangerous levels of radiation in certain medical devices.
But I do have to commend the brave scientists who banded together to raise these concerns. I really do. Bravo to you. The cost to fight power can be expensive and personally exhausting. It makes me think of the FBI agent who blew the whistle on the "Fast and Furious" program, and was fired. He is still unemployed and faced with mounting debts. When asked why he blew the whistle on his superiors he simply replied, "Because I want to be the man my son thinks I am."
Courage. Sometimes it's that simple.
It's because others have also seen this pervasive pattern of intimidation of researchers who seek to uncover the problems of autism and other conditions that we have formed "The Canary Party." I believe you will see great things come from this group. We are motivated to have unbiased, oppression-free science so that we and our children can experience the health which should be the birthright of every human being.
And for those of you who would impede honest science, remember, there's always the possibility of making it onto the front page of The New York Times.