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Though the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) must be commended for hosting the Interstate Alliance on Stem Cell Research meeting in Washington under a policy that completely opened the meeting to the public, the august body needs to update its own procedures.

During the IASCR meeting of representatives of various state stem cell funding programs, the discussion turned to polices regarding the newly discovered Induced Pluripotent Stem (IPS) Cells.

Dr. Fran Sharples, 
Director, Board on Life Sciences, told the group that an NAS committee will be developing model policies on IPS cells.  Someone asked if that would be a public meeting.

"No," said  Sharples, "You'll have to know the 'secret handshake."

I told the group that NAS would be better served and its model policies likely to be better understood and supported if they were developed with maximum transparency in public.

Sharples said I ought not waste the IASCR's time with my views on NAS as it was an NAS policy and the alliance of public officials has nothing to do with it.  

Perhaps she's right.  But then the IASCR meetings -- after I was tossed out of one in Irvine, CA -- are now open the public.

Sharples noted that NAS takes no public money and has been meeting in secret since its founding in 1863.  Well, that's exactly the point. There's been a lot of change in our society since Abraham Lincoln's time and our scientists need to get with the program.

NAS may not receive any public money, but government policy-makers regularly rely on its advice and model policies.  To maximize effectiveness , public understanding and support, NAS should conduct its operations with maximum transparency.

There could be provisions for an occasional executive session, but the default position should be for public meetings. Gone our the days when scientists can simply say, "Trust us, we know best."  

If scientists come out of their laboratories, engage the public and explain their work, they are far more likely to receive the public funding they so desperately need.

Let's end the "secret handshake."