Effect Measure

You wonder when they will ever learn — or IF they will ever learn. In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. David Schwartz, will step aside while NIH does an inquiry into allegations of turmoil at the institute and management irregularities, comes a letter sent to NIEHS employees — and as far as we know only NIEHS employees — asking for reporting of any contacts with Congress:

Employees of the National Institutes of Health in North Carolina are being asked to report all contacts with Congress – a request that one legislator suspects is an attempt to flush out would-be whistle-blowers.

Managers distributed “record of congressional inquiry” forms to employees of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, in Research Triangle Park and one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the NIH.

At least one of those workers reported being made “nervous” by the form and forwarded it to congressional investigators who check out allegations of conflicts of interest, excessive spending and other management issues at the institute.


The form asks for details of each telephone call from the offices of members of the House or Senate, including on the information sought. Logging and reporting such calls is standard procedure in the congressional- affairs offices of federal departments and agencies.

But the forms don’t appear to be something given out to “regular” employees, said Sen. Charles Grassley (Rep.-Iowa). Their distribution came in the midst of multiple and continuing investigations by Congress, including by Grassley’s staff. Nor do the forms appear to have been distributed elsewhere within NIH. (AP)

Maybe it is common practice in federal agencies to log such inquiries or discussions with Congress but it shouldn’t be. Under the law, federal employees have an absolute right to provide information to Congress and interfering with this right is itself illegal. Many employees of state governments also are required to report contacts with the press or with members of their state legislatures, and we also consider this a deplorable practice. We know state employees who therefore do this from their homes, off hours, acting as private citizens, which is their right. So the requirement has no practical force, having as its main effect to discourage the exercise of a guaranteed right.

NIEHS is one of the main arms of the federal government doing research on pollution and its health effects. There are obvious practical, and hence political, implications to this developing knowledge. That is why it is especially important to insulate the basic science from the kind of political interference that has become a hallmark of the Bush administration.

When will they ever learn? Or will they ever learn?

Addendum: The following results of a just completed survey of NIEHS scientists (members of the 206 member Assembly of Scientists) shows a stunning loss of confidence in the current leadership of the Institute. Three quarters of the responding scientists (and half of the total) said the actions and decisions of the Director had a negative effect on their morale, while by two to one they voiced no continued support. 80% gave a vote of no confidence.

Here are the results, in full:

Dear NIEHS Assembly of Scientists Membership,

As per the NIEHS Assembly of Scientists constitution quoted below (Article VI, section 6), a vote was requested of the membership of the NIEHS AoS, seconded, thirded, with 7 additional cosigners from among the membership.

“Any matter shall be submitted by mail to the members of the Assembly for voting by secret ballot if it has been so designated by the Council or requested by at least 3 members of the Assembly”.

Three questions were submitted to the NIEHS Assembly of Scientists for voting by secret ballot at the general meeting of the NIEHS Assembly of Scientists held on Monday, August 13th. To permit all members to vote, a motion was passed to allow voting until COB, Monday August 20, 2007.

146 of the 206 assembly members responded. The results of the balloting are as follows:

On the question “How have the actions and decisions of the Director, David Schwartz affected your morale?”

99 out of 146 responded Negatively
6 out of 146 responded Positively 36 out of 146 responded that they were not affected
One person chose not to respond to this question, but voted on others

On the question “At this time, does the NIEHS Director have your continued support?

36 out of 146 responded YES
91 out of 146 responded NO
15 people chose not to respond to this question, but voted on others

On the question “Do you have confidence in the leadership of the NIEHS Director?

25 responded YES
107 responded NO
10 people chose not to respond to this question, but voted on others

Four members responded to the ballot, but chose to abstain from answering any of the questions.

Thank you for your participation.

Douglas Bell
President NIEHS Assembly of Scientists


  1. #1 isles
    August 21, 2007

    So it would appear that NIEHS scientists do not share your view of Schwartz as a principled leader. Am I following this series of posts correctly?

    If so, I wonder if they doubt his scientific acumen because of things like his support for vaccines-cause-autism activists; he is scheduled to speak at a meeting of the grandiloquently named National Autism Association this fall.

    If that’s their beef, they should be going after Tom Insel as well; he is also a speaker at the same conference. And I don’t think either one is there to attempt to bring science to the misled. They should be ashamed to appear on a list that includes David Kirby (hack journalist), Andrew Wakefield (MMR scaremonger), and Jeff Bradstreet (exorcism-prescribing, supplement-selling fraud).

  2. #2 RfP
    August 22, 2007

    How timely. I just finished reading Allegra Goodman’s novel “Intuition”, in which the NIH gets caught up in a scandal over a Congressional subcommittee tampering with science and exerting undue influence.

  3. #3 revere
    August 22, 2007

    isles: No, you are not following me on this. I have had and continue to have grave misgivings about the Director’s leadership. I do know him and like everyone else he has his strong points and his weak points. Unfortunately his weak points are particularly serious for being NIEHS Director. I have also known the previous Directors , so I have many points of comparison. Dr. Schwartz comes out badly in that. I am not aware he supports any position on vaccines and autism, which is out of his field and his interests. Do you have a cite on this?

  4. #4 isles
    August 22, 2007

    Thanks for the clarification. Here’s where Schwartz and Insel are on the list of speakers for the objectionable autism conference:


    Here is where the organization states its beliefs about vaccines and autism:


    Other evidence of ties between NIEHS and autism-mercury activists (mostly not Schwartz-specific):

    http://www.niehs.nih.gov/od/presentations/ppt/NIEHS/ VSD-meeting-schwartz-050306.ppt

    I’m not a big expert on this, I just know what I’ve heard.

  5. #5 Vicki S
    August 23, 2007

    This is another part of the Bush administration’s “War on Professionalism” that David Brin blogs so eloquently about. The URL I give is a link to one of his posts.
    Search his domain for others.

  6. #6 isles
    November 12, 2007

    I wanted to return to this even though it’s such an old post because I realized I’d perpetuated a misunderstanding. I am informed that the NIH speakers at the National Autism Association conference (Insel and Wilson, in place of Schwartz) did not pander to the unscientific beliefs of this group in their speeches this past weekend. In fact, I am mightily impressed with their forthrightness in the face of a very hostile crowd. I still disagree with their decision to appear, but they acquitted themselves well.

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