Director of NIH environmental institute resigns under fire

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.

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As I commented on one of your previous posts, Schwartz's selection was problematic from even before he took the helm with concerns over his conflicts of interest. My impression is that he is an accomplished physician-scientist (hence the apparent funneling of resources and personnel from his previous institution into his group) but lacking in leadership qualities. Great scientists don't necessarily make great leaders.

The most intriguing parts of your post are the questions about how high up the ladder the alleged improprieties might track and, unbeknowst to me, the clash between public health and clinical medicine interests.

Oh, and I love the Bush administration-patented late Friday afternoon press release. Thanks for posting on this and making the public health community aware of what we hope will be an end to this chapter.

tox boy: You are completely correct in your observations that his appointment was problematic from the outset. He apparently cut some side deals with Zerhouni about his conflicts to overcome his hesitation about taking the job and it is some of those activities, which I am led to believe he thought he had permission for, that got him into trouble. Of course there was more to it. If he had had an otherwise successful tenure as Director he probably would have made it through. But he acted arrogantly and capriciously and his word could not always be relied upon. He also had a complete tin ear for what people were saying -- or he didn't care. In other words, he fit right in to the Bush appointee mold. He is better off just doing science, not directing science policy. And we are better off, too.

Great post, dude! Everything Bush and his wackaloon suck-up minions touch turns to shit. You have to admit, such a completely consistent record of utter fuckwittitude is quite an accomplishment. You'd think there would be a few things that they wouldn't manage to fuck up, just by accident. But no, they're batting one thousand.

Powerful post.

By DemFromCT (not verified) on 09 Feb 2008 #permalink

And I suppose that Jack Welch if he went into GE and fired a bunch of people he didnt like it would be a tin ear? How about the fact when you are in charge that you dont have to listen to anything or anyone? You make decisions, you rise or fall with them.

If this guy did something wrong then state it plainly but not conjecture and the ever incessant Bush Bash. You are going have big problems if McCain is elected because to win there are going ot be all sorts of tin gods and more so than Bush. Another thing is that the "how far up the blame goes" insinuation. Are you insinuating that the guy did something illegal? Most of us get the presumption of innocence but not if you are a Bush appointee. If you are appointed you simply are automatically a member of Big Pharma, or a crook by definition of appointee.

I would hate to see what will happen if the Republicans are elected again Revere. You might have to retire. You wont be able to take the stress.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 09 Feb 2008 #permalink


Did you miss the part where Revere mentioned working during Democratic and Republican presidents for forty years? Bush is an outlier, and that's not a comment on his truthfulness. I don't relish the idea of a McCain administration, but I seriously doubt he'd fold, spindle, and mutilate science in the way the Bush administration has systematically done over the last eight years.

Randy: Feel free to read the previous posts where this has been discussed. I also clearly stated in the post and he admits in his letter what the big problem was. The Bush bashing is so well earned I don't know why you bother to defend him. All of this has been thoroughly documented. This is the worst administration for science in my memory and Reagan was, we though, a historic low but doesn't hold a candle to this guy. Nixon was pretty good. It's not a Democrat/Republican thing, although you want to make everything into a partisan battle. That's one of the big problems today and you are contributing to it. This administration and the congress that went with it was extraordinary in its incompetence and partisanship. Previous congresses, either Democrat or Republican weren't like that. These guys are outliers -- or just plain liars. They will go down in history and they can't go down fast enough for me. A McCain administration, as much as I think it would be a disaster in other ways, won't be the kind of catastrophe for science that Bush was. McCain actually understands there is a climate change problem and he is for stem cell research. So it's not a Republican issue primarily. It's a nutcase issue and this administration and the previous congress was full of nutcases, too many of them Democrats (Ben Nelson, Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, Boren, etc.).

Just wanted to make you aware of more trouble for CDC under Julie Gerberding regarding environmental issues. Please see this piece from the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "CDC under investigation over Katrina cancer risk;
Congressional committee also looks into whether agency retaliated against scientist"

How about the fact when you are in charge that you dont have to listen to anything or anyone?

No. When you are in charge, you don't have to listen to anyone beneath you. You still have to listen to the people above you.

And you always have to 'listen' to the world. When you stop paying attention to that 'thing', it always comes back to bite you. Always.

The idea that the person in charge is magically free from responsibility to others or causality is a fantasy of the mentally deranged.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 09 Feb 2008 #permalink

MRK: don't get me started on Jack Welch or we'll be here all day. When he became our CEO, GE made the best steam turbines in the world (most reliable, most efficient). At that time we spent about half our engineering budget on research and development. We had already gone through big reductions as a result of the downturn in electrical power growth and the disappearance of the nuclear power industry in the U.S. Our business leader told him we had already cut off all of our fat, and some of our muscle and bone. Welch replaced him with a hatchet man who got rid of every engineering group that had the word "research" or the word "development" in their title. (We hid one last office under the name "Advance Design".) Ten years later our competitors had caught up and surpassed us.

Here are a couple of direct quotes which he was so proud of that he included them in annual reports. When asked how he could keep laying off people from the same business year after year (I think by an interviwer from "Business Week"), he coined the phrase, "You can always squeeze more blood out of the lemon." When asked in that same interview whether layoffs had a bad effect on employee morale and loyalty, he replied, "What idiot is loyal to a company?"

I started under GE engineering managers who had fought in WWII, and who believed crazy things like, if someone has busted their hump for GE for 20-30 years, visiting up to 60 power stations a year in far-away places to keep GE turbines running and customers happy, you don't throw them away like used kleenex so the business can make x% more profit. They all took early retirement or left to do consulting work in Welch's first decade. I wish I had asked them a lot more questions, because they left knowing twice as much about turbines as I do.

Welch had one great talent: using smoke and mirrors to make Wall Street happy. In the early 1990's, when we were trying to resucitiate our technology, we would start off every January with test plans and a budget, order big alloy-steel forgings to make test rotors from, and like clockwork sometime between April and June some GE business somewhere would "fail to make its numbers" and our budget would be cut to nothing and the forging orders cancelled (paying contractual penalties for that) to keep overall numbers in line with Wall Street's expectations. In some cases we actually sold million-dollar test forgings for scrap, so Welch could look good.

I have more: getting us out of the internet business during its infancy; "de-layering"; and his crowning achievement, his "Least Effecive Person" (aka LEP, aka Loser) policy.

I have to admit, I was taken in by the WMD thing and supported the Iraq invasion, but it did cross my mind that there was no need to go halfway around the world after meglomaniacal, sociopathic dictators when there are so many of them here, running large corporations.

Sorry about the rant, please enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

JimV-Again, I reiterate.....Does or did anyone question it? Nope because it produced the desired results in the eyes of the board. Same with this guy. I go back to the presumption of guilt of something here. Questionable, sure but the assertion is that someone did something illegal. If he diverted supplies and money to his own lab then its not a conflict of interest, its ellegal and he should be prosecuted. But, got to have evidence first and there are plenty of prosecutors around who would take the case.

Even Clinton got busted and he was definitely lying. He wasnt busted for a BJ, but was for lying about it. He got lucky.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 10 Feb 2008 #permalink

"How about the fact when you are in charge that you dont have to listen to anything or anyone?"
No Mr Kruger, that's not how real leadership works. What you describe is despotism. The Zapatistas of Chiapas understand it better. There style is to "mandar obediciendo", lead by obeying the people you lead.

Again, you havent proven anything in your arguments Ron or Daedalus. Or, have we forgotten the Constitution. If the guy is in charge he can listen or not, fire or furlough. Thats what IMO got him into trouble and charges and allegations are made and then we get Wee Willie Waxman on one of his incessant and never ending investigations that turn up little or nothing. But he has subpoena power and well golly gee, sometimes its better not to say anything lest someone tries to turn it into obstruction rather than conviction of the original supposed crime.

And Ron, I think speaking from a long military career that I know what leadership is. So run on down to Mexico and speak up for those people. You will be led immediately to jail for voicing your support.

JimV-And Allison had the same cutbacks.... or did you miss that? Everyone keeps on this immoral act of making money and rising to the top. J. Welch wasnt even a genius. They did the same at Autozone. They are doing it at Ford, Chrysler and GM will figure it out soon enough. So you see its not just Welch. I tell people that each year via the business plan that they are there because I can justify based upon economic conditions that they will be needed for at least the next five years. IF economic conditions change as they did on 9/11 I might have to cut them. I didnt and we had a pretty good second half of 02. Deflation caused the last quarter and the first half of 01 to go pretty south. But, they are still there.

One of the reasons I started my own busines Deady is because I realized I was smarter than the people I was working for.... So I listened to no one but myself and now I am the largest independent operation in the SE. I made some mistakes and sure one or two people came by that knew as much as I did or sligthly more. Its like when the business consultants call from Chicago at a certain company that want to come in and tell me what I am doing wrong. They tried to hire me as a consultant about 8 times in the last 10 years. Yeah, I listen but most of the time I end up dismissing it in the face of reality.

Jim-I also worked for a company that had a lot of engines with Snecma/GE. I can recall a turbine wheel or two that went for a ride on their own but were contained. I can also remember a few that didnt. Maybe its the assumption that you guys did no wrong other than to send out an SB. Also maybe, the liability issues that Welch was looking at demanded a lot more than just a verbal warning? I dont know. You probably only looked at the cuts. Deadwooding a company can only result in profits rising as a rule.

But everyone will just disagree and thats acceptable to me. For me? I have told everyone that if UHC is implemented that 1/2 will lose their jobs the day it goes into effect. It will tank the economy within months and I want them to have every opportunity to get a job with government managing healthcare. They didnt believe it but I showed them the undated termination letters and there was one for every employee. Blackmail? Nope, just heads up about what will happen when government becomes as onerous as it is with the guy above. I prefer to believe that he is innocent until proven guilty. Revere thinks that if they get a Dem in the White House that all things will change. Not going to happen. There are too many money constraints and we are finally figuring out what it costs to maintain a force in Iraq, a S. Security program, a Medicare program, a Medicaid program, an Aid to Dependent Children program. All of those generate nothing except for the last one. We need those guys. The oldies we dont need and yes that includes me in about 30 years. Unproductive and on the dole. I will work until the body simply gives out because that is the way I was raised.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 10 Feb 2008 #permalink

MRK: some of those old, WWII managers were pretty tough, but I liked working for them anyway, because they were fair, and would listen when you argued technical details, and once in a while you could even change their minds. (I have a feeling I could work for you okay.) In my first 20 years I thought I would someday die at my desk at GE (or on the shop floor or on a field trip). I don't know Welch personally, but things became untenable for me when the people he hired percolated down to my level. They get very antagonistic when you try to explain how reality differs from their simplistic assumptions, and when something goes wrong, the blame always flows downhill from them.

I was going by a friend's office one morning, just as he was getting off the phone from a call from a superior. The friend was about the last one of us "old guard" types who was still in management. He looked at the big clock on the wall, and said, "Well, it's only 9 AM and so far I've been called a m*th*rf*ck*r three times." He had played football for Woody Hayes, but he also had two kids in college, and had to take it. Soon after I decided I didn't.

I don't remember a lot of wheels coming off, but whenever there was a problem (prior to Welch), I'll bet you saw an anthill of GE engineers around it rapidly, myself among them. We had our share of technical problems - the development guys used to complain that they spent more time investigating field problems than on new advances - but the reliability and efficiency statistics were kept by the industry, and in the Golden Age as I remember it we were clear leaders. Not coincidentally, those were our goals, and how we measured ourselves, with big charts on the walls. Nowadays those charts show productivity and profit margin.

Hey, it's their company, and they can run it any way they like. I sure miss the days when I could be proud of being a part of it, though.

I apologize again to the rest of you for dragging this discussion off-topic. If it's any consolation I paid for it with the high-blood pressure and restless night caused by dredging up a lot of bad memories.

MRK, so "might makes right"? Simply because someone has the power and authority to do something that makes them automatically correct? That sounds a lot like the devine right of kings.

What Jack Welch did was "liquidate" the "good will" that had accumulated at GE. Some might argue that was a good thing. Certainly those who received the liquidated value of that good will will say so. But once you liquidate an asset it is no longer there.

That is what Bush is doing to the military, liquidating the good will that has accumulated since Vietnam. That is why recruitment is down, that is why moral is down, that is why everything is being cut to the bone and beyond.

When you start to run the military like a business, the soldiers become mercenaries. When the soldiers begin to feel like the Pentagon and the VA are thinking "You can always squeeze more blood out of the lemon." then the soldiers will start to think "What idiot is loyal to [the military]?" With an all volunteer military, soon the only people joining are the "idiots".

If the only "wars" we have to fight are against a rag-tag bunch of ill-trained guys with weapons they buy on the black market, maybe a military run by "idiots" with no moral can "work" for a while.

Can we stop the Bush bashing? So-called Bush Derangement Syndrome distracts from the real issue: corruption across the board in our government and industry, especially where related to biomedicine. Conflicts of interest, mismanagement, layoff fanatics, and academic and scientific ass**les predated Bush, and will continue after Bush.

I don't think any government was responsible for this pharma debacle, for example.

Deadie-Then why dont you guys quit UN'ning everything and people of my ilk go in and do what is necessary and that is the scorched earth. Men, women, children....If by only attrition we would get out of this mess we keep walking into ever since Korea. There were plenty of Chinese around back then, 60 to 1 in fact. We were napalming, clustering and HE'ing the shit out of them.

I recall reading about Chosun and how they were beheading our people when caught. So when we came in and slaughtered them by air who did they bang up in the newspapers? The US.

Politically correct wars.... Is there really such a thing. Fight it with honor, fight it with respect. But you do what is necessary to win. The bleedin' Al Qaeda knows that. I also know that if they gain control of 2/3rds of the Middle East that they will win in under ten years.

BTW the recruitments are off the scale now...... Not what you are portraying. That includes my own daughter and my son will go too.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink