Monday, February 11, 2008

Allegedly Conflicted Institute Director Leaves NIH

Last summer, we posted about allegations that Dr David Schwartz, then-director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the National Institutes, of Health, NIH), had several significant and previously undisclosed conflicts of interest. These included stock holdings in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, work as an expert witness in litigation that continued while he was director, and bringing in faculty members from the university where he previously worked full-time, while maintaining his faculty position there.

Late last Friday, Dr Schwartz's resignation was made public (but only in an email to Institute staff, in the news section of Science):
David Schwartz, the embattled director of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH’s) environmental health institute, resigned today after a stormy 3-year tenure to head a research program in Colorado.

Schwartz, a pulmonary disease researcher, drew controversy soon after he left Duke University in 2005 to head the nearby NIEHS in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Environmentalists, scientists, and some lawmakers protested when he wanted to privatize the institute's journal and shift funds from disease prevention to clinical studies. But the real trouble began when an inquiry by Congress revealed that Schwartz was consulting for law firms and had built up a large personal lab despite concerns from NIH ethics officials. Schwartz temporarily stepped down as director in August and had been serving in an advisory role to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni while the agency reviewed NIEHS management....

In an e-mail today to NIEHS staff, Schwartz explained that his reasons for leaving were 'simple': NIEHS 'would be more successful with new leadership,' he wrote, and he 'would have a greater impact in environmental health by working as a physician-scientist.' In addition, Schwartz wrote, 'our community has not universally embraced the scientific direction or strategies that I have implemented' and that he had 'inadvertently disenfranchised segments of our community,' for which 'I sincerely apologize.'
To what the mention of "disenfranchised segments of our community" referred is unclear, but our previous post noted reports that Schwartz's "foot-loose and fancy-free" approach to NIH rules had demoralized some institute staff.

This appears to be one small step towards reducing conflicts of interest affecting the leadership of the NIH. As we said before, such conflicts raise "concerns about whether their actions are meant to serve science and the public, or their private financial interests."

The allegations about conflicts do not seem to have affected Schwartz's reputation.

Schwartz has apparently landed on his feet. He is leaving this spring for the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colorado, a world-renowned center for research on respiratory diseases. He will head a new genetics research center and also direct the pulmonary and critical-care division. Gilbert Omenn of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who served on a search committee that recommended Schwartz for NIEHS director, says his problems there were 'unfortunate' but that his move to Denver is 'terrific for National Jewish and terrific for him.'

As we have noted before, conflicts of interest seem to be an accepted part of "doing business" at too many academic medical centers and medical school, going hand in hand with the "show me the money" attitude of their leadership, based on the notion that faculty members' main responsibilities are to bring in more money to the institution, wherever it may come from.

Hat-tip to the Effect Measure blog.

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