Monday, August 27, 2007

No Confidence Vote for NIEHS Leader

We have posted frequently (e.g., here) about conflict of interest issues affecting the flagship US biomedical research organization, the National Institutes of Health. Most recently, our focus was on happenings at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), whose director was just forced to temporarily step down.

The Scientist (UK) reported more trouble:

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).

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 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.

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.

This story is not yet over, as a Congressional enquiry is underway.

It is very sad to continue to hear stories like this about an organization that is responsible for so much important science, and which used to have a sterling reputation. This story teaches an important lesson about the demoralizing effect of bad leadership of health care organizations on the people who actually make these organizations run. Maybe some of the recruitment problems that federal health care organizations have had are due to problems with the integrity of their leadership, rather than employees' diminishing prospects of private gain.

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