Late yesterday afternoon, a Friday and classic time to release news you don’t want anyone to read, I got the following email [excerpted] from David Schwartz, on leave as Director of the National Institute of Health Sciences (NIEHS), the main public health-oriented NIH institute and the subject of several previous posts (here, here, here, here, here):
Dear friends and colleagues,
I have decided to resign as director of the NIEHS and NTP, effective immediately. My reasons for this decision are simple. I believe that our institute would be more successful with new leadership, and that I would have a greater impact in environmental health by working as a physician-scientist.
However, I also recognize that our community has not universally embraced the scientific direction or strategies that I have implemented during my tenure as director. In my enthusiasm to bring new science and opportunities to our field, it appears that I have inadvertently disenfranchised segments of our community. I sincerely apologize for the pain this may have caused. I am confident that new leadership can address the concerns of those in our community.
Schwartz was on leave while a thorough independent audit was made of the Office of the Director at NIEHS. He had been accused of a variety of improprieties, some of a minor or petty nature. But there were also some of real substance, including potential conflicts of interest and using Institute resources for his own laboratory. Most importantly, he tried (and succeeded in some ways) to change the nature of the Institute from a public health orientation to a clinical medicine shop. While this caused dismay in the public health community it put NIEHS in line with NIH Director Zerhouni’s “NIH Roadmap,” which many saw as little more than a superhighway to Big Pharma country. The disastrous consequences of Schwartz’s attempt to deform and distort the public health mission at NIEHS was to send morale in the environmental health science community, both inside and outside NIEHS, down the chute.
The audit promised to a Congressional oversight committee last November has still not arrived. A major question will be how far up the food chain the blame goes. Many of the things Schwartz was accused of were said to have been approved by Zerhouni to entice Schwartz to take the job in the first place. It is possible the resignation will make the audit moot. I hope not.
Meanwhile, by all accounts the rock bottom morale from the Schwartz era has substantially improved under the Acting Director. But he is still only an Acting Director. There are too many things he cannot do to right the boat. At this juncture the most important thing Zerhouni needs to do is give him regular status. The greatest fear of many who look to NIEHS as an anchor in basic environmental science research is that Zerhouni will either name some caretaker from Bethesda to keep the lights on and the water running (but not much else) or he will himself take a powder without doing anything, leaving NIEHS in limbo. It’s quite clear Zerhouni plans on leaving at or before the end of the Bush administration (for which he carried water so ably). If he wants some plum academic job he might himself leave soon, before the start of the next academic year. In that case tidying things up at NIEHS might not be very high on his To Do list.
I have been an active researcher for 40 years, through many Republican and Democratic administrations. Some were better than others, but none have been like the nightmare for the scientific community of the last 7 years. The NIEHS situation is perhaps not forehead-slapping-bad (although we’ve had plenty of that elsewhere in the Bush science establishment). It is just dysfunctional and morale sapping, and that’s bad enough. Bush appointees came into office with their own ideas of what they were going to do, whether it was invading Iraq or tilting science policy in certain directions, and they didn’t listen to anyone else. The damage to American science is extensive and won’t be fixed for decades. We are quickly losing a generation of young academic leaders and with them American dominance, even leadership in science.
I’ll be overjoyed to see Bush go. But the devastation will remain.