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Controversial Science, Health Group Turns 25

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The American Council on Science and Health turns 25 this year and its reputation for being one of the most controversial nonprofit groups around is still intact.

It is self-described as a consumer education organization ``dedicated to providing the public with mainstream scientific information on issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.''

Take its side in a debate, especially if you are a journalist, and you can get bombarded by groups from Nader to the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, as I did two years ago.

Refer to it as an ``industry group,'' as its opponents do, and you get calls from the council's watchdog and associate director, Jeff Stier, a 31-year-old lawyer whose skill in defending his New York-based organization extends from writing letters to The Wall Street Journal to standing up to Julia Roberts.

We present a view that industry sometimes agrees with and sometimes does not,'' he said.We go where the science takes us.''

He freely acknowledges that the organization is often referred to as pro-industry, but says that's because it sometimes takes unpopular positions that seem anti-consumer.

Like the time it questioned government funding for Rett Syndrome, a serious but rare disease. Here's where Julia Roberts comes in.

Roberts testified before Congress last year in support of money for Rett research. It's a development disorder that begins in early infancy.

The ACSH, however, argued that the government has ``a finite amount of money'' and it shouldn't be directed to research based on which celebrity supports a disease, but how widespread the disorder is, how costly, etc.

``When you have to allocate these resources, you have to do it in a logical way,'' Stier says.

``We support mainstream science, and that's why we're sometimes unpopular. We look for areas where people have their priorities upside down.

``We're paying attention to the wrong things in this country.''

Some people think it's Stier and his organization that are standing on their heads.

But that's what makes this group - - so fascinating. The loud shouting over who is right and who is wrong serves to illuminate issues that might never get much daylight.

``We've challenged our own funders,'' Stier says in response to allegations that the group coddles up to industry, whose money - yes - it takes.

But, he says, ``Our funding list looks very much like the Harvard School of Public Health, which gets industry support.''

He says the ACSH is not beholden to anyone, whether it receives donations or not.

``We challenge people on the scientific merits.''

The challenge to Rett Syndrome money could have been more about the small federal money pie for disease research than about misplaced scientific priorities. ACSH might even actively support such research if more federal dollars were directed toward disease research overall. Who knows?

But Rett supporters bombarded Stier with hate mail for his ``celebrities shouldn't set policy approach,'' he said.

I say, welcome to the club.


(The Cox web site is at )

c.2003 Cox News Service

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