A five-year battle between NIH and its parent, the Department of Health and Human Services, culminated last month in the replacement of Edwin ("Ted") Becker as director of NIH’s Office of Research Services (ORS). Last year the office was responsible for the purchase of some $174 million worth of items for both the main campus in Bethesda, Md., and affiliated laboratories around the country.
The last straw was an April 15 letter from Richard Kusserow, the department’s inspector general, to HHS Secretary Otis Bowen. In it, Kusserow charged that "there is a major failure in internal controls at ORS . . . which is resulting in $26 million in precious research funds being lost each year due to ineffi- ciency and mismanagement."He added: "Prompt and decisive action is needed to root out these long-standing, systemic procurement deficiencies."
NIH has long resisted such criticism. A report accompanying Kusserow’s letter cites findings from several investigations over the past five years into procurement practices at NIH, all of which call for greater accountability, control over procedures, and concern for saving money. But Becker weathered each of the previous studies because NIH scientists were pleased with the quick response time by the agency’s decentralized ordering system.
The department’s auditors believe that giving purchasing authority to hundreds of persons encourages enormous waste. NIH Director James Wyngaarten acknowledges that changes are needed, but he disputes the magnitude and severity of the problem.
"It’s a classic battle between the scientists and the men with the green eyeshades," he says, "Their only concern is the government’s fiduciary responsibility, while Ted wanted to deliver the goods as quickly as possible. And he’s done a great job. Ted can walk on water as far as the NIH scientists are concerned, that’s how smoothly the system is working."
Wyngaarten also disputes the financial loss from current practices, saying that the $26 million figure does not come from any official audit but that it "has taken on a life of its own." He cites a study by the private, independent Logistics Management Institute calculating waste at 1%, or less than $2 million.
But the report also gave HHS officials the weapon they needed to oust Becker. "Aggressive action needs to be taken before May 31, 1988, when the report from the Logistics Management Institute is scheduled to be made public," Kusserow wrote to Bowen. "Failure to act could undermine public confidence in NIH’s ability to provide proper stewardship over the funds appropriated for biomedical research." Bowen apparently agreed.