Do FDA administrators work for the public whom the agency is entrusted to protect, or pharmaceutical corporations who count on FDA approval? If they work for the public, why are they spying on their own scientists when those scientists raise questions about drug safety and the agency’s approval processes? The New York Times reported in July 2012 that the FDA conducted a vast surveillance operation against a group of its own scientists. Records that were accidentally released show the agency captured thousands of e-mails that concerned FDA scientists sent congressional members, lawyers, labor officials, journalists, and even President Barack Obama.
FDA officials claim the scientists were targeted for surveillance because they were issuing disinformation meant to discredit the agency. The scientists said they were only trying to get the truth out about some of the agency’s questionable handling of medical device safety. The dispute between the scientists and the agency has lasted for years, after the scientists claimed faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.
Who’s Minding the Minders?
One has to wonder at the opportunity cost of FDA administrators spending such time and effort on monitoring their own scientists rather than on addressing the scientists claims of the agency’s shortcomings. The whole episode speaks to the politicalization of science, and the agency’s fear of the truth about its own shortcomings regarding the safety of medical devices. Obfuscation and secret surveillance by FDA administrators have no place in a free society dependent on the unfettered, uncensored flow of information. If there were a proper atmosphere of scientific rigor at the agency, administrators would have no need to secretly gather information to be used against scientists who appear to have the public’s interest foremost in mind. If the FDA is ever going to win back the public’s trust, its administrators must show some willingness to favor the public interest rather than the corporate interests of international pharmaceutical companies.