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Trouble brewing at NIH agency

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences faces inquiries as NIEHS scientists voice lack of confidence in director

By | August 22, 2007

More than 100 tenured and tenure-track scientists at the NIH's environmental agency say they no longer have confidence in the leadership of David Schwartz, embattled director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The vote of no confidence, cast during a secret ballot held from August 13 to August 20 at the request of NIEHS Assembly of Scientists members, follows a series of controversies at the agency, including its proposal to privatize and cut funding for Environmental Health Perspectives, the agency's open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal, in September, 2005. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), a ranking member of the Senate's Committee on Finance, has also accused Schwartz of mismanagement. This week, the NIH announced it was conducting a review of the "management and leadership" of the NIEHS, during which Schwartz will "temporarily" step down from his position. He is replaced by deputy director Samuel Wilson. A senior NIEHS researcher, who asked not to be identified, provided to The Scientist the results of a secret ballot held by NIEHS's Assembly of Scientists at the request of assembly members. The group consists of tenured and tenure-track professors at the agency. Out of 146 NIEHS researchers who voted, 91 voted that Schwartz no longer had their support and 99 voted that their morale was negatively affected. The researcher said that "the morale is as low as it can go," at NIEHS. "We're devastated down here," the researcher said from the agency's Research Triangle Park, North Carolina headquarters. The ballot's three questions addressed Schwartz's affect on morale at the agency, whether or not the director had the support of the polled scientists, and those scientists' confidence in Schwartz's leadership. The senior researcher who provided the ballot results said that Schwartz diverted money away to his own research program and that the researcher therefore lost funding. In response to an Email sent to Schwartz, an NIEMS spokesperson contacted The Scientist and said, "The review will take place and decisions will be made." Grassley has been peppering NIH director Elias Zerhouni, who appointed Schwartz, with letters requesting information regarding Schwartz's activities as NIEHS director. In an April 9 letter, Grassley asked Zerhouni to provide all communications between the NIH chief and other officials at NIH and NIEHS regarding reported problems with Schwartz. In response, Zerhouni sent hundreds of pages of documents and a report by NIH's Office of Management Assessment on Schwartz's alleged mismanagement, but included only one Email from himself and no Emails dated April through October of 2006. In a June 21 letter that cited several internal NIEHS Emails provided to the Finance Committee, Grassley detailed several allegations levied against Schwartz. The letter charged that Schwartz, a researcher and physician specializing in environmental lung care at Duke University prior to his NIEHS appointment, acted as an expert witness or a medical expert for two law firms involved in asbestos cases and obtained permission to partake of these activities from NIH officials. The letter accused Schwartz of bringing on too many of his colleagues from Duke to his NIEHS lab. One December 2005 Email quoted in the letter, from an ethics officer to Raynard S. Kington, the deputy director of the NIH, reads, "He's suppose (sic) to be recused from Duke. Exceptions are swallowing the rule." As a result of these ethical breaches, Schwartz was forced to close his NIEHS lab temporarily in February, 2007, and several of the Duke researchers he had hired on to work in his lab were sent back to the university in a process one NIH ethics officer dubbed in an Email "de-Duking." In two more recent letters, Grassley asked for more information from Zerhouni regarding Schwartz's activities as NIEHS director. In a letter dated July 25, 2007, Grassley noted, again citing internal documents by anonymous NIEHS staffers, that Schwartz overshot the $1.82 million budget for his laboratory by more than $4 million in 2006. The letter alleged that Schwartz may have diverted funding from other NIEHS researchers to fund his own lab. An August 20, 2007, letter from Grassley to Zerhouni requested information from the NIH chief regarding a form allegedly sent around to rank-and-file NIEHS employees which they must fill out to report Congressional inquiries. The form, in which employees are to list the name of the legislator and details of the specific time and date of the inquiry, is intended to "flush out whistleblowers," the letter charged.
According to an Email from Grassley's spokesperson, NIH has not provided a "complete response" to the allegations outlined in the two letters.
In response to an Email to Zerhouni requesting comment, an NIH spokesperson told The Scientist, "Most of the concerns that have been raised recently were identified and corrective actions were taken internally by the NIH Office of the Director prior to Congressional inquiries. Our conflict of interest policies, which were overhauled and strengthened in February 2005, are stringent and clear. All Directors must submit a signed affidavit that says they received them, understand them, and agree with them." The senior NIEHS researcher interviewed by The Scientist said that ethical problems extend all the way to the top of the NIH hierarchy. "The things that Dr. Schwartz did, he got approval for," the researcher said. More legislators, including Henry Waxman (D-CA), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and John Dingell (D-MI), are now requesting further documents from the embattled Schwartz. Bob Grant mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article: David Schwartz http://www.niehs.nih.gov/od/ NIEHS Assembly of Scientists http://dir.niehs.nih.gov/aos/ C. Shekhar, "Environmental Health Perspectives faces cuts," The Scientist, August 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/24245/ Charles Grassley http://grassley.senate.gov/public/ United States Senate Committee on Finance http://www.senate.gov/~finance/ Samuel Wilson http://www.niehs.nih.gov/ododd/wilson.htm T. Agres, "Elias A. Zerhouni," The Scientist, July 2002. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/13166/ June 21, 2007 letter from Grassley to Zerhouni http://www.senate.gov/~finance/press/Gpress/2007/prg062707.pdf
July 25, 2007 letter from Grassley to Zerhouni http://www.senate.gov/~finance/press/Gpress/2007/prg073007b.pdf
August 20, 2007 letter from Grassley to Zerhouni http://www.senate.gov/~finance/press/Gpress/2007/prg082107.pdf The Form http://www.senate.gov/~finance/press/Gpress/2007/prg082107a.pdf
T. Agres, "NIH's conflicting interests," The Scientist, December 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15151 Henry Waxman http://www.henrywaxman.house.gov Dennis Kucinich http://kucinich.house.gov John Dingell http://www.house.gov/dingell/
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