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BMJ. 2007 September 1; 335(7617): 420.
PMCID: PMC1962878

US National Institutes of Health investigates one of its own institutes

Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), has announced “a comprehensive review of the management and leadership” of one of its 27 institutes, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the related national toxicology programme.

“Congress and others have raised important questions and concerns over the past few months, and we will be fully responsive,” he said.

The NIH will convene a panel of management consultants and senior NIH officials who are not associated with the environmental institute or the toxicology programme. “The panel will review the specific issues raised to date but also include an evaluation of administrative areas such as governance, internal controls, human resources, contracts, grants, and financial management as well as the administration of the ethics programme,” the NIH said. The review will take several months.

The environmental institute, in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, and its director, David Schwartz, have been criticised by members of Congress and in many news stories for his management style, possible conflicts of interest, and the institute's review of the risks from the compound bisphenol A.

Dr Schwartz will temporarily step down as director of the institute. He will remain chief of the Laboratory of Environmental Lung Disease at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and will continue as senior adviser to Dr Zerhouni on environmental health issues.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican member of the Senate's Committee on Finance, has been conducting an inquiry into “allegations of mismanagement and possible ethics violations” at the environmental institute.

Dr Schwartz was unwilling to comment on any of the allegations “in order to be sure the review process is not affected in any way,” his press spokesperson said.

Last week the senator sent a letter to Dr Zerhouni urging him not to intimidate government employees at the institute when they try to speak out about problems there. Such “whistleblowers” are protected by law. Senator Grassley's letter was prompted by a report that institute employees felt intimidated when they were given a form to complete if they had been contacted by Congressional investigators.

NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said that news stories gave the wrong impression that the form was handed to all of the roughly 680 employees at the environmental institute, when in fact it had been handed to just four employees. He said that handing out the form was standard procedure for NIH employees who are contacted by members of Congress or their staff.

Dr Zerhouni has reiterated that the NIH is committed to the open expression of opinion and works every day to supply Congress with the information it needs.

He said, “NIH is committed to the letter and the spirit of the federal whistleblower protection statutes. Under those statutes, no NIH employee will be subject to retaliation, directly or indirectly, for exercising their rights under federal law.”

The environmental institute has been criticised for its review of possible risks from bisphenol A, a chemical used in food and drink packaging and found in soil and water and that has been found in many humans. An institute panel found little reason for concern about its effects on health.

However, on 8 August 2007 the panel concluded that there was “some concern” that exposure to the chemical in utero might cause neural and behavioural effects in the fetus, “minimal concern” that it might have effects on the prostate and on development during early puberty, and “negligible concern” that it might lead to birth defects and malformations.

The panel found “some concern” about neural and behavioural effects in infants and children and “minimal concern” about early puberty.

In adults, the panel found “negligible concern” for adverse reproductive effects and raised the risk to “minimal” concern for people with high exposure to the chemical.

Some 38 scientists released a consensus statement expressing concern that people are being exposed to a level of the chemical that is biologically active in animals (Reproductive Toxicology doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2007.07.005).

Notes

The panel will solicit public comments and, after a review, will post its final report in the autumn on its website (http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov).


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