I will admit to having a soft spot in my heart for one of the NIH institutes, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. NIEHS is on a separate campus in Research Triangle Park, NC, away from the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. It is separated in other ways, too, having a decidedly more public health focus than the other institutes. Its mission, like other NIH institutes, is to ferret out the basic causes of illness, in NIEHS’s case, environmentally caused or influenced illness. Its interest in cancer caused by industrial chemicals, asthma from air pollution, reproductive and development effects from contaminants in the environment are inherently controversial, as is any science when the stakes are high. I’ve known two of its previous Directors, the late David Rall and Kenneth Olden. Rall was one of the great men of public health in his generation and he brought NIEHS to scientific preeminence in the field. Olden brought a special interest in working with communities on vexing problems of environmental contamination. When his second five year term was up, he was replaced by David Schwartz, a pulmonologist researcher (whom I also knew in various ways prior to his assuming the job). To say the Schwartz tenure hasn’t worked out well would be an understatement. Now there is an inquiry by powerful and influential members of Congress. These are very unhappy days for NIEHS (more below the fold).
Even before assuming the job, Schwartz raised eyebrows by refusing to take the job if he were subject to new NIH conflict of interest rules put in place because of flagrant abuses at other institutes. This was public knowledge, but I had heard Schwartz’s prinicipal objection was the new restrictions would make recruiting talented scientists more difficult. It is now reported he also had other concerns:
[Schwartz] delayed taking the job, informing [NIH Director Elias] Zerhouni that some of the rules would prevent him from attracting top talent to NIEHS and harm him personally, though he did not publicly disclose how. He took the job when, he said, Zerhouni assured him that new rules limiting personal investments in pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical equipment companies would be loosened.
NIH refused a 2005 News & Observer public records request and a 2006 appeal for correspondence between Schwartz and Zerhouni on the matter, saying it was exempt from public records because it dealt with personnel issues. (Charlotte News and Observer)
Not long after assuming his position, Schwartz started to make major changes in direction at NIEHS. He was openly hostile to its long standing “Centers” program, thus earning the hostility of some influential scientists. He also pulled the plug on the relatively new Children’s Environmental Health Centers and then put a stake through the heart of Olden’s community outreach orientation. But what got him in the most trouble was his dogged and stubborn effort to privatize NIEHS’s highly prestigious Open Access scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP; see our posts here and here). The pushback from the scientific community was immediate and vigorous. The complaints included pressure applied through members of the former Congress. This reportedly angered Schwartz, who has a short fuse. While publicly backing down, he went ahead with his plans, using a variety of workarounds to accomplish his original ends. One of those objectives, it appeared, was to steer the journal to his previous employer, Duke University. The conflict of interest issue was reappearing, although in an unexpected place.
Now the investigation has widened. I have heard rumors that over ten thousand pages of documents have been requested by Congressmen Henry Waxman and Dennis Kucinich, chair of the House Oversight Committee and one of its Sub=Committees, respectively. Neither are shrinking violets. Waxman, in particular, is a bulldog investigator. They have gone beyond the EHP, issue, to records of personal financial transactions and consulting:
“Multiple sources have contacted the committee to raise additional questions about your conduct as director of NIEHS” beyond criticism of proposed changes proposed at the journal, a March 30 letter from the congressmen states.
We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but however it does, it cannot be good for NIEHS. The stench of corruption that clings to everything the Bush administration and its Republican lapdogs in Congress has reached into one of the jewels in the crown of American science, the NIH. The Bush appointee Julie Gerberding is taking CDC down the toilet and now the Schwartz affair at NIEHS is revealing more damage to federal science. This is without even mentioning OSHA, FDA, EPA and the other do nothing regulatory agencies neutered by this administration.
It will take a generation to recover from the damage. Heck of a job, George. And Julie. And David. And . . .