On April 15th, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided a report to Sen. Chuck Grassley addressing his inquiry into allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interest at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is one of the 27 institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Why did Grassley see the need for the report? His words speak volumes, “It is imperative that Congress and the American people trust that the decisions made by our scientists are motivated solely by public health priorities and scientific opportunities, not personal financial concerns.” The boom in bio-terrorism and bio-defense spending since 2001 has been the subject of much debate and has forced government leaders such as Grassley to question to need and ethics surrounding the  research. Clearly an agency who is charged with properly justifiying research, grant and funding oversight should be held to the highest standard.

The report identified four key management problems:

  • The NIEHS ethics program is not operating effectively. NIEHS ethics staff did not maintain proper documentation of ethics actions and reports, and they did not review or certify about half the confidential financial disclosure reports that were analyzed for this assessment. Further, ethics staff said they are having difficulty fulfilling the requirements of their positions, partly because of staffing shortages and partly because they are responsible for additional duties that are not ethics-related. Without an effective ethics program, NIEHS cannot monitor employee compliance with ethics laws, regulations, policies, or procedures, jeopardizing trust in the integrity of major research program decisions and key management processes.

 

  • Decisions to fund grant applications out of rank order are not properly documented, as required by NIH policy. Although Institute management has flexibility to fund grants out of rank order, such decisions must be properly justified and documented in the official grant files and approved by appropriate officials. Without properly documented justification, NIEHS cannot guarantee that funding decisions are consistent with federal policy and requirements, are free from undue influence, and instill confidence in the integrity of management processes as a whole.

 

  • The Board of Scientific Counselors (BSC), which is responsible for periodically reviewing the work of tenured and tenure-track intramural scientists, is not receiving complete information about actual resource usage. Without complete information, the BSC may not be able to determine the relative cost-effectiveness of scientific projects and make well informed recommendations on research allocations.

 

  • There is a preponderance of negative perceptions of senior management among NIEHS staff, including among senior scientists. The results of two surveys, along with individual interviews and focus groups, showed more negative responses than elsewhere at NIH or in the federal government on questions measuring respect for senior leadership and leaders’ ability to generate high motivation and commitment. The NIEHS Assembly of Scientists further emphasized these perceptions in August 2007, when it voted (107 out of 142) “no confidence” in the leadership of the NIEHS Director. Although the direct causes of these negative perceptions are not readily apparent, it is clear that the current management and governance structure has been unable to respond effectively to a host of deficiencies that have existed for some time.

Read more of the report here.

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