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HHS Scientists Face Constraints in Interactions with International Organizations

August 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 33


One area of serious concern is policy changes by the Department of Health & Human Services that restrict the activities of its scientists. Some of the HHS directives--which impact researchers working at the National Institutes of Health, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)--restrict travel, limit foreign conference participation, and regulate advisory panel membership.

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HHS Scientists Face Constraints In Interactions With International Organizations

For example, a June 28 memo from Sharon Hrynkow, acting director of NIH's Fogarty International Center, says NIH researchers must submit notifications for foreign travel if they are to consult with scientists or attend meetings at any international organization, even in nearby Washington, D.C. These so-called multilateral entities include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Pan American Health Organization, other United Nations entities, and the World Bank. Previously, no foreign travel authorization was required for travel from, for example, NIH in Bethesda, Md., to the World Bank in downtown Washington. The memo requires that this notification of foreign travel be submitted to the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs at least 30 days before the travel takes place.

HHS has also moved to severely restrict the number of scientists who are allowed to attend foreign meetings. If a manager wishes to send more than 20 people to a meeting out of the country, he or she must justify to the Global Affairs Office why it is necessary to send so many.

But the greatest concern is over a memo issued in April by William R. (Bill) Steiger, HHS special assistant to the secretary for international affairs. Steiger, a political appointee with no scientific training, stipulates that HHS scientists speaking to colleagues in international organizations must say nothing that contradicts official U.S. policies. U.S. regulation requires "HHS experts to serve as representatives of the U.S. government at all times and advocate U.S. government policies," the notice says. "The employee is ONLY to represent the positions of the department and the U.S. government," it adds.

This new prohibition directly contradicts a WHO regulation that says advisory panel members "shall act as international experts serving the organization exclusively; in that capacity, they may not request or receive instructions from any government."

In addition, Steiger's memo stipulates that WHO must submit all requests for U.S. scientists to serve on its advisory committees to the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs. WHO, the notice says, may no longer request specific scientists but must identify the "specific skill sets" needed for the positions, and HHS will decide which experts are the most appropriate. "When a multilateral organization invites a specific HHS official to participate in one of its events, that expert might not be fully aware of the activities and priorities of other HHS agencies," the memo explains. Before this change in policy, WHO simply contacted NIH, FDA, and CDC experts directly and invited them to serve on advisory committees.

After WHO officials objected to this prohibition against requesting specific scientists, a compromise was reached. WHO is now permitted to request a specific expert, but it must still submit the request to the Global Health Affairs Office. And HHS reserves the right to suggest an alternative.

Only a few other countries, including Russia and China, prohibit WHO from contacting their scientists directly when inviting them to serve on advisory panels.

HHS spokesman William Pierce maintains there is no conflict between WHO and HHS. "The policy is in place. WHO has accepted it. The controversy is only that some of our internal scientists are whining a bit," he tells C&EN. With regard to WHO's submitting requests to the Global Health Affairs Office for advisory panel members and for foreign travel notifications for domestic travel, he says: "All we are asking for is accountability. We need to know who is going to these meetings."

On July 20, Paul W. Kinkade, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and Jordan J. Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, wrote a letter to Steiger complaining that the policies regarding WHO scientific advisory panels are "very troubling."

"We understand that when federal scientists are asked to participate as official representatives of the U.S government in the articulation of government policy, those scientists are expected to conform to applicable federal policy," Kinkade and Cohen write. "However, when they are invited to scientific meetings to share their unique scientific and technical expertise, whether as official representatives of the government or not, and whether here or abroad, the circumstances are entirely different," they add. Scientists need to be able to interact with their peers freely, "in an environment free of political constraint or distortion," they explain. "Never in our own long years of service on federal scientific advisory bodies [have] we encountered an instance in which we were informed that our scientific opinions ... [must] conform to particular policies of the U.S. government."

Gerald T. Keusch, who directed the Fogarty International Center from 1998 until last December, says these new policies have prompted discontent and serious concern among NIH scientists. A number of NIH researchers have told him they want to leave the agency, he says. Keusch is now associate dean at Boston University's School of Public Health.

The HHS directives show that "some political appointees respect neither the integrity nor the independence of scientists in their agencies," says David M. Michaels, research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health & Health Services. Senior career leaders in HHS are fleeing federal service, Michaels says.



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