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Cell Phone Research Looks For The Authenticity
Their offices decontaminated after last year's anthrax attacks, Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords moved some staff back into their normal premises on Capitol Hill this week with another health issue on their agendas - research into the risk from mobile phones.
Their aim is to resurrect a bill calling for more government funding for research into the potential risks. It marks their third attempt in four years to bring the US into line with the rest of the world, by handing federal bodies greater control of a research effort traditionally dominated by the mobile phone industry.
On Friday, the contrast between the US and other countries will grow more stark when details of a £7m ($10m) research programme half funded by the UK government are unveiled. Even without the senators' persistence over government funding, concerns on the independence of studies directly funded by mobile phone companies are increasing.
"Everything has moved to ensure that industry involvement is at arms length," says Dr Colin Roy, of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency who was involved in his country's A$4.5m ($2.3m, £1.6m) government research programme.
"The public are not going to accept something that they think will be tainted by the industry. If money is coming from the industry it's now got to go through a couple of firewalls before it gets to the researchers," he said.
Dr Roy is helping the World Health Organisation co-ordinate much of the global research effort.
Michael Repacholi, who heads the WHO's programme from Geneva, estimates that about $100m is being spent on research around the world: "Although there's still a lot of industry funding in countries like the UK, Australia and Japan, it goes through the government and the research is controlled by the government."
The mounting pressure on the US to mirror this has been prompted by frustration that, while mobile phone users worldwide have ballooned to nearly 1bn, science appears no nearer a verdict on health risks.
Last year, the US General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress's watchdog, published a report identifying "concerns about the objectivity of industry-funded research" and lamented that studies sponsored by the US government "represent a small portion of the total worldwide research effort".
This signals a turnaround from the situation in the mid-1990s, when the US mobile phone industry established a six-year, $25m programme. The project - called Wireless Technology Research (WTR) - was solely funded by the industry with autonomous management.
However, while scientists around the world had then looked to the US for a lead, the project ended in controversy, marred by questions of accountability and caught in a legal wrangle over privacy infringed as part of epidemiological studies.
"Most of the research has moved to Europe since the collapse of the WTR," says Dr Repacholi. "It is now almost totally focused around the WHO research ag Capriola, a partner at Weinstock & Scavo, an Atlanta law firm bringing both class-action and personal injury lawsuits. "In areas outside the US, where it seems governments or private organisations are putting money into it, we are going to get our best shot at untainted outcomes."
However, Mr Capriola says the amount of control exerted by the industry over the research agenda is also crucial. "I think it's part funding, but it's also getting the funding to the research that needs to be done."
Jo-Anne Basile of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, the US mobile phone industry's trade association, says this will be provided through a follow-up to the WTR project launched last year.
Although, the new research is still being funded by the industry, it now includes direct participation from the US Food and Drug Administration, and lawmakers have asked the GAO to monitor the programme. "You can't have any changes in the research design without the FDA," she says.
Other publicly-funded research in the US includes another large epidemiological study and a $10m animal study. Nevertheless, Ms Basile argues debates over the source of funding miss the point.
"The issue is not about where the dollars or the euros come from, but what kind of assurances and rigorous safeguards are put in place. Who is controlling the research agenda? Are the scientists free to publish their views? Those safeguards are what people ought to be calling for, not government funding," she said.