By Liz Borkowski
Revere’s been keeping us up to date on the latest news about the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – specifically, the stepping aside of Director Dr. David Schwartz for an NIH investigation, and the letter sent to NIEHS employees with the apparent goal of discouraging whistle-blowing. It seems like a good time to review some NIEHS happenings that had already attracted congressional scrutiny.
As regular readers may recall, NIEHS lacks appropriate policies to identify and address potential conflicts of interest in contractors it hires. Earlier this year, health advocates pointed out that the contractor preparing the draft review of the chemical bisphenol A for the Center for Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (which is part of NIEHS) had ties to companies that manufactured and used that chemical. In February, Representative Henry Waxman and Senator Barbara Boxer requested a briefing on the contractor’s activities and potential conflicts of interest, noting that “The NIEHS plays a crucial role in understanding and mitigating the impacts of chemicals on human health, and we are concerned that the extensive use of contractors at CERHR may undermine this goal.”
The contractor, a company called Sciences International, was fired; a later audit of its activities uncovered no improprieties in the preparation of the bisphenol A report. (For more on BPA, see our past posts on the issue.) A working group convened, and in June issued a report that
…identified a number of best practices and specific areas where improvements could be made by NTP/NIEHS, as well as by the entire NIH, that could result in identifying COI as early in the acquisition process as possible in order to avoid, neutralize or mitigate those COI.
We’ll have to keep watching to see if NIEHS, or NIH as a whole, will adopt these practices.
EHP Cuts and Privatization
Prior to the CERHR contractor inquiry, members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform raised concerns about attempts to privatize NIEHS’s peer-reviewed, open access journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In a November 2005 letter to NIH director Elias Zerhouni, 13 Members of Congress stated their opposition to privatization, noting that the proposed move “places at risk the integrity and quality of one of the world’s best independent journals that deals with the environment and health.” On this blog, OSHA-L also noted that proposed cuts to EHP’s budget imperil the journal’s Environews feature, which provides cutting-edge scientific news in a format accessible to non-scientists.
EHP’s success in drawing attention to important environmental health issues might have been what marked it for cuts and privatization. The Society of Environmental Journalists summarized the issue in its TipSheet back in April:
EHP has raised public awareness of issues like perchlorate health effects, mercury poisoning, and “inert” pesticide ingredients, that the Bush administration regulatory agencies responsible for regulating them, like EPA, have tried to play down. The journal’s current issue (April) focuses on the health effects of climate change — a subject that may hardly be welcome in the Bush White House as it digs in its heels in opposition to mandatory greenhouse emission controls. Many in the public health community fear that Schwartz’s dogged efforts to cut the magazine are actually an effort to silence it.
Schwartz’s persistence in cutting the magazine after loud objections were voiced by public commenters and Congress may be a sign that the policy originates from above him: in the office of National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni, or even the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush White House. Former OMB regulatory czar John D. Graham has taken a special interest in science matters at NIEHS.
Schwartz told journalists in June 2006 that he was giving up on the idea of “privatization” — a term sure to resonate sweetly in the ears of free-market advocates at the OMB. But he then proceeded with a plan to outsource most functions of the magazine to a private contractor, eliminate most of its outreach to a non-medical and worldwide audience, and cut its budget by approximately 85 percent.
Ethics officers also objected to provisions in request for proposals for EHP contracting because the RFP’s geographic restrictions seemed to favor Duke University, from which Schwartz was on tenured leave during his first year-and-a-half at NIEHS. Representatives Henry Waxman and Dennis Kucinich wrote to Schwartz in March requesting that he provide the Committee with all documents relating to the proposed privatization or outsourcing of EHP, including those relating to geographic restrictions in the RFP.
In June, NIEHS Deputy Director Samuel Wilson wrote to Waxman requesting that the institute be allowed to proceed with issuing a new RFP before the Committee completed its inquiry. In response, Waxman and Kucinich wrote to Zerhouni to say that they did not object to NIEHS releasing the RFP prior to the inquiry’s completion, “provided that you are able to ensure that the new RFP not suffer from the same shortcomings as the RFP released by NIEHS in October 2006.”
Questionable Ethics and Expenditures
SEJ reports that Schwartz’s rationale for EHP privatization was to re-allocate money to research – but he spent twice his proposed annual EHP budget ($500,000) on remodeling his personal office. This is not an isolated example of Schwartz’s ethically questionable decisions regarding money.
In April, Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, requested documents related to Schwartz’s management of NIEHS. After reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, including a report from NIH’s Office of Management Assessment, Grassley wrote to Zerhouni:
It appears, based on the information reviewed to date, that Dr. Schwartz has been granted numerous waivers to provide expert testimony and/or medical opinions for at least two different law firms involved in asbestos lawsuits. As far back as the summer of 2005, numerous ethics officials at NIH raised red flags about this activity, yet it was allowed to continue.
I note also that the OMA conducted an ethics inquiry into alleged mismanagement by Dr. Schwartz. That inquiry determined that Dr. Schwartz:
• violated federal travel policies in paying for a limousine ride with federal funds.
• inappropriately used members of his staff to take his car to a dealership for service.
• used government funds to frame personal pictures.
That OMA report also made a number of determinations regarding lab space that NIEHS provided to “guest researchers” from Duke University. Dr. Schwartz was on tenured leave from Duke University throughout his first year and a half at NIEHS and was warned continuously by NIH ethics officers of the potential conflicts of working with Duke University and its researchers. Yet OMA did not find that NIEHS acted inappropriately. This finding by OMA seems inconsistent with recent actions initiated by the NIH. Just months ago, NIH instructed numerous Duke researchers in Dr. Schwartz’s lab to return to Duke. In an email dated March 13, 2007, one ethics officer referred to this process as “de-Duking.”
Grassley requested answers to several specific questions regarding these actions by Schwartz and NIH’s responses to them. In July, he announced that he was broadening his inquiry, noting in his letter to Zerhouni, “You are probably unaware of the fact that a number of employees at NIEHS are unhappy with the leadership of Dr. Schwartz, and morale at the Institute appears to be less than stellar.”
Three days ago, Grassley had to write to Zerhouni yet again – this time to ask why NIEHS employees had received a “record of congressional inquiry” form that, since it was distributed during a congressional investigation, “could cause these employees to feel that management is attempting to flush out whistleblowers or any other individual assisting me with my inquiry.”
Let’s hope that this Congressional pressure can help turn NIEHS back into an agency its employees can be proud of.
Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.