Reflections on "Mission Impossible"
Before and after accepting the responsibility to Found a Bio-Medical Research Division at Livermore, I gave and have continued to give much thought to the issue of whether such a task represents "Mission Impossible."
Today, thirty years later, I am convinced that unless some major changes are made, such missions are indeed impossible with respect to public credibility.
I originally told John Foster, then LRL director, that there was no way for me to accept the responsibility to do this job since I had little or no confidence that the AEC really wanted to know the truth about health effects of radiation.
His reply, paraphrased, incorporated four points:
Do you think the issue is important? I said, "Yes," emphatically.
Do you think that I, John Foster, would let you down in the event of AEC pressure for sanitized research? I said, "I certainly hope not."
Do you think the 10 members of the LRL Board of Directors would tolerate such interference from AEC? I said, "I do not think so and I hope not."
Do you think the Regents of the University would tolerate this?
To this, I said emphatically, "No." I had and have a great respect for the Board of Regents of U.C.
At a conference in Washington, with Foster, Wally Reynolds and myself present, I said to the assembled commissioners, (Ramey missing), "I suggest you think twice about asking me to do this job, since I really will not put AEC programs ahead of the public's right to know the truth about health effects of radiation."
Professor Seaborg, then Chairman of AEC, said "Jack, all we want is the truth."
In retrospect, I am glad I undertook the task. I loved the Livermore Lab as a place to work, and was most happy and productive in my research there. There were few places I could imagine with better circumstances for enjoyable work. That is the positive side.
On the negative side, the history speaks for itself. None of the fine pronouncements were honored. All were violated, except possibly the U.C. Regents, whom I never tested. I really harbor no resentments over all this. But DOE's track record remained so bad that in 1989, even DOE Chairman James Watkins admitted that DOE-sponsored safety claims about radiation have no credibility with the public.
Today, some elegant work is being done at Livermore with chromosomes and F.I.S.H., and I hope to explore the technique with you in the future. But when F.I.S.H. is used for biological dosimetry, there will be automatic suspicions about lack of blinding or other routes to introduce bias. . . . if the work is government-sponsored.
I am sure that there are objective, DOE-sponsored experts who are very sad about DOE's lack of credibility, which taints their own work. So a solution would be in your interest as well as the public's. I do not believe the Laboratory and DOE can ever achieve credibility on the issue of health effects of radiation (or other pollutants) unless you establish some powerful counter-measures to the obvious conflict of interest.
One such measure could be a permanent policy of setting aside a segment of the health effects budget --- say 5 or 10 % --- to be administered by independent, non-governmental, citizen-based groups who would sponsor on-site experts of their own choosing. The daily on-site presence of potential whistle-blowers would do a lot to liberate DOE-sponsored analysts from any humiliating pressures, and would give their own work some real credibility.
I can not guarantee that this would work. But I do guarantee that more than powerless "citizen advisors" are needed to give DOE-sponsored health studies some public credibility. Without a serious plan to cope with conflict of interest, the bio-medical programs will remain -- with respect to public respect -- on a Mission Impossible.
John W. Gofman
for the 30th Anniversary of LLNL,
November 22, 1993
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