NIEHS Management Troubles | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: April 15, 2008

NIEHS Management Troubles

Report from NIH finds problems in ethics, grants programs
Department: Government & Policy
building in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Credit: NIH
building in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Credit: NIH

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) suffers from management problems in its ethics and grants program, according to a report from NIH.

On April 9, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni sent the report to Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations. Zerhouni had been asked by the committee to review management at NIEHS, one of NIH's 27 institutes and centers.

Management of NIEHS, which is in Research Triangle Park, N.C., hundreds of miles from the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., has been a lightening rod for congressional scrutiny since 2005, when David A. Schwartz took over as director. The embattled Schwartz left the institute in February, after stepping down from his post in August 2007 amid probes by Congress and the Department of Health & Human Services (C&EN, Feb. 18, page 26).

The NIH review of management at NIEHS found that the institute's ethics program was not operating effectively. The ethics office failed to maintain proper documentation, and most public and confidential financial disclosure reports were not being reviewed or certified, the report states. Meanwhile, the ethics program suffered from staffing shortages.

The NIEHS Ethics Office has since been transferred to the office of the institute's director, and its staff has been doubled from two employees to four, the report states.

The review also found that NIEHS strayed from NIH's policy to properly document its decisions to fund grants that reviewers ranked lower in scientific merit while higher ranked requests remained unfunded.

"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 report states.

In addition, most NIEHS staff members have "negative perceptions" about senior management at the institute, the report states.

In the wake of the review, the institute has also frozen its fund for accepting unsolicited donations. Congress allows NIEHS to accept gifts and bequests of money or personal property to support the institute's research, workshops and conferences, and staff recruitment efforts, as well as for purchase of laboratory equipment and supplies.

During the moratorium on accepting further donations to the fund, NIEHS is reviewing three unconditional gifts and 27 conditional gifts, which are those targeted at a specific effort, such as the institute's study of women with a sister who had breast cancer. The institute is also developing new guidelines to review donations for conflicts of interest and criteria for the fund to accept gifts.

A panel of NIH-based and outside management experts oversaw the review and made recommendations in light of its findings.

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