AAAS honors scientist's commitment to justice for workers and scientific integrity in public policy

Dr. David Michaels is this year's recipient of the prestigious AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. He is recognized for his commitment to obtaining justice for workers who became ill after working in nuclear weapons programs and for advocating scientific integrity in public policy making.

David Michaels is research professor and associate chair in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services, and directs the department's doctoral program. He has extensive experience in research, regulatory and public policy, and program administration, and focuses much of his work on the health of the disadvantaged and the use and misuse of science, especially in the courts and the regulatory arena. He has taught epidemiology and biostatistics at several medical schools, and conducted epidemiologic studies on typographers, commercial pressmen, construction workers, bus drivers, and paper workers, as well as on tuberculosis, sexually transmitted disease, drug abuse, mental health, homelessness, and HIV.

"Dr. Michaels' advocacy on behalf of sick workers and his responsible efforts to draw public attention to threats to the integrity of scientific decision making in government exemplify the exercise of responsibility by scientists envisioned by the Board when it established this award," said AAAS Science and Policy Director Albert H. Teich.

From 1998 to 2001, Dr. Michaels served as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the U.S. Department of Energy where he championed a decades-long struggle by workers who had been employed in the manufacture or testing of nuclear weapons. They were seeking compensation for chronic and often fatal illnesses that may have been caused by exposure to materials used in the U.S. weapons program. The now-aging workers were required to litigate their claims on a case-by-case basis, a process that could take years to reach a resolution. Although they were experiencing life-threatening occupational illnesses at a higher-than-expected rate, the government insisted on keeping secret the very information that could have helped prove the validity of their claims.

Seeking justice for these individuals, Dr. Michaels took on powerful interests in his own agency and in the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to uncover previously secret records documenting exposure to radiation and beryllium at work sites, as well as more than two dozen scientific studies demonstrating the high risk of cancer deaths among these workers. His efforts led him to be cited as the architect of a historic initiative, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000, which guaranteed that workers be compensated for illnesses likely caused by occupational exposure. The knowledge that Dr. Michaels gleaned from the long-secret documents led him to successfully fight for stricter limits on exposure to beryllium, once again overcoming objections from DOD and industry.

The AAAS selection panel noted that the efforts cited above were typical of Dr. Michaels' work earlier in his career. At that time, his concerns for disadvantaged groups of people often ignored by researchers in the health sciences was exemplified by his service as founder and director of the Epidemiology Unit of the Montefiore-Rikers Island Health Service, the first unit of its kind in a prison. In that role, he conducted studies on tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, mental health, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS in an incarcerated population.

The panel also cited Dr. Michaels' devotion and contributions to the integrity of science in public policy making. He is chair of the Planning Committee of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, a group of scientists focused on how science is used and misused in government decision-making and legal proceedings.

Among the issues that he has been instrumental in putting before the scientific community and the public at large is the composition of federal scientific advisory committees. While acknowledging that these committees are intended to reflect a variety of views and areas of expertise, Dr. Michaels warned of attempts to "stack" the committees to ensure that unwanted advice would not be rendered.

Dr. Michaels was also visible in the debate over a proposed executive branch policy that was designed to give the Office of Management and Budget more oversight and control over regulatory decisions based on scientific or technical data. He, along with others, objected to the initial proposal on the grounds that it could harm scientific research. Another aspect of scientific integrity to which Dr. Michaels has directed his energies is what he terms "manufacturing uncertainty." He contends that both industry and the government undermine science that points to the need for additional regulation by overstating the uncertainty that accompanies all science. By emphasizing the uncertainty and ignoring scientific consensus, those opposed to new or stricter regulations are strengthened in their public positions.

The Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award is presented annually by AAAS to honor individual scientists and engineers or organizations for exemplary actions that help foster scientific freedom and responsibility. The award recognizes outstanding efforts to protect the public's health, safety or welfare; to focus public attention on potential impacts of science and technology; to establish new precedents in carrying out social responsibilities; or to defend the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

This annual Award was established in 1980 and is approved by the AAAS Board of Directors. The recipient receives $5,000 and a commemorative plaque to be bestowed at the 2006 AAAS Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Mo., on 18 February. (See http://www.aaas.org/meetings.) For more information on these or other AAAS awards, go to http://www.aaas.org/aboutaaas/awards.

AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society, dedicated to "Advancing science ∙ Serving society."


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