A political pundit recently likened the Bush administration to the refrigerator that was never cleaned under the Republican rubber stamp congress. Now that new housekeepers have moved in they are finding lots of gross and moldy half eaten meals in the back. The latest to stink the place up is Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the most public health oriented of all the NIH institutes. Or it used to be, as we noted in an earlier post. Under Director David Schwartz it was on its way to being the kind of harmless agency most congenial to the Bush administration. But the housekeepers have started to look under the bed at NIEHS, too. It’s getting ugly.
The thin end of the wedge was Schwartz’s attempt to privatize the Institute’s flagship scientific publication, Environmental Health Perspectives, EHP. This is the world’s premier environmental health journal and it is an Open Access journal, to boot. It publishes about 100 papers a year out of almost 1000 submissions, so it is highly selective. In the interests of full disclosure I have published there fairly often and also done peer review for them, so I have a stake in what happens at EHP and its reputation. But I think my concern is widely shared in the field of environmental health science. When Schwartz’s plans to privatize EHP became known there was a vigorous and immediate pushback from the scientific community and he was forced to retreat. Last June he announced he had abandoned his plans to privatize the journal. But then he proceeded to outsource all its functions and this is where things got sticky.
NIEHS’ rush to farm out EHP was interrupted earlier this year when ethics officers objected to provisions that would have seemed to favor award of the contract to Duke University Press — because the fact that Duke University was Schwartz’ previous employer created the appearance of conflict-of-interest. One result was that the contracting process was put in the hands of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which presumably would be more independent.
But that independence may be more apparent than real. NIEHS contracting officers briefed the NLM contracting officer as the handoff was made. NIEHS pictures these contacts as innocent ones needed for the transition.
The original “Request for Proposals” (RFP) contained a “geographic restriction” requiring the contractor to be within 30 minutes of NIEHS’ office in Research Triangle Park, NC. That seemed to favor Duke. A new preliminary “Sources Sought Notice” suggests that NIEHS has found new ways to accomplish the same thing — requiring the contractor to be able to “host” the EHP editor and have “ready access to scientific expertise” on NIEHS topics. So in the end, Duke may have a leg up under the new RFP also.
NIEHS and NLM have been in a rush to get the revised RFP out, sources say. NIEHS had been hoping to issue it by now — but there have been several unexplained delays. It may come within a week. But it is not clear how the Kucinich subcommittee request will affect the timing of its ultimate issuance. Whenever it is issued, sources say NIEHS is planning to give bidders a very short time period to respond (as short as two weeks). That again could favor Duke, which has already been involved for some time in working up a proposal — and discourage entry of new competitors into the arena. (Society of Environmental Journalists, Tip Sheet)
Understand that EHP has been straightforward in publishing important scientific articles on important environmental pollutants and most recently on climate change. Not the stuff to make the Bush administration and their allies in Congress feel warm and fuzzy toward it. Many think this is the real motive behind Schwartz’s neutering job on the journal.
But now the wheels are starting to coming off the truck. Schwartz has shown himself unreliable in many ways, not the least of which is doing things he says he won’t and not doing things he says he will. He is also gutting EHPs budget, despite claims of solid support. The former budget of $3 million is being slashed to $500,000, which the Tip Sheet wryly notes is half of what he spent to remodel his NIEHS Office on his arrival (after it had just been remodeled).
Now Congress is in on the act, with Representative Dennis Kucinich’s Oversight Subcommittee (part of Henry Waxman’s Oversight Committee) asking for many documents related to the EHP affair and Schwartz’s own conduct as Director:
Among the things the subcommittee is asking Schwartz for by an April 20, 2007, deadline are all documents and communications relating to the privatization or outsourcing of EHP or cuts to its budget. But the panel is also asking for documents on spending by Schwartz personally or the budget of the director’s office, all communications about ethics rules, any ethics waivers Schwartz may have received, financial disclosure forms, and any payments from, consulting arrangement with, or financial interest in outside organizations that might have a stake in NIEHS’ work.
Whether the subcommittee’s request will bring all those documents remains to be seen — along with whether or not the documents will include any evidence of impropriety. But the request is hardly a blind fishing expedition. Unsubstantiated rumors of alleged infractions or waivers of ethics rules have been circulating for months. (SEJ Tip Sheet)
What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to
deceive suck up to the Bush administration.