- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Since the founding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 50 years ago, Americans have been committed to safeguarding the nation’s health by investing in research — a priority despite war and national security. But today, in the face of flattening budgets, demoralizing and unfair attacks on institute directors and investigators and slackening American interest in science, the Bush administration and Congress may soon face accountability for a crippled national research enterprise.

The naysayers currently chastising NIH for supposed conflict of interest issues have not considered that in nearly 55 years of operation, NIH has enjoyed a distinguished record of organizational integrity and an enviable record of individual investigative achievement. If the agency is riddled with “conflicted” scientists, how could this be? Critics have failed to take into account the dedication of NIH scientists (scientists who could easily triple their salaries with private positions) and the nature of drug research today (which requires collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and has resulted in the only FDA approved therapies in the last decade).

In recent testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni stated, “It would be a mistake to ban all compensated activities with outside organizations. Such an action would be bad for science, unfair to employees and ultimately hinder our efforts to improve the nation’s health.”

Transparency and full disclosure lie at the heart of science. Congress and the public have the right to know what, if any, outside relationships scientists have. And, despite the fact that currently not a single NIH scientist stands accused of rule-breaking, Dr. Zerhouni is moving to ban outside consulting by NIH scientists with grant-making power. This effort does not mean that there has been impropriety — but it means that where human lives are at stake, even issues of perception are critical.

Additionally, Dr. Zerhouni is implementing measures to assure transparency and integrity throughout NIH. These include: increasing the number of NIH scientists subject to financial disclosure rules and convening a task force to make broad-based recommendations on every aspect of outside compensation for scientists.

The scientists of NIH and associated academic medical centers have provided Americans with an extraordinary return on their investment. We have been given vaccines against polio, anthrax and many other serious illnesses; we have seen development of anti-viral agents that can combat HIV, herpes and hepatitis; we have been provided with an array of antibiotics and we have seen effective new therapies for cancers and other devastating diseases. We now have surgical interventions that allow us to transplant organs, replace joints and implant pacemakers.

But, as our investment in basic science research holds promise of more major breakthroughs, we attack NIH scientists and challenge their motives. What does this mean? It means that we are disrupting and distracting scientists who are leading the fight against Parkinson’s, diabetes,arthritis, Alzheimer’s, HIV and other devastating illnesses. It means that these scientists may feel that they have lost the confidence of the people they are striving to serve and we are sending a chilling message to young scientists considering entry into this field.

Last week, the National Science Foundation issued a report stating that the United States was losing its dominance in science. The report, commissioned by Congress, and titled “An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force,” found that there was a “troubling decline” in Americans training to be scientists and said that “such trends threaten the economic welfare and security of our country.” The trend also threatens our health.

Former NIH Director Harold Varmus has stated if we are to perform outstanding science, we must, “link science to national objectives, work together to conserve resources, train the next generation of scientists and improve the scientific literacy of the public.” None of this will be possible if we continue to degrade researchers, discourage young investigators from entering government-sponsored research institutions, and throw up a continuing series of regulatory and publicity-driven roadblocks in the way of scientific progress.

In a climate of fear and reprisal, it is difficult for our science establishment to create an atmosphere conducive to innovative and important work. Investigators must not be denied reasonable access to financial support and to cutting-edge equipment and technology. Similarly, if we are to compete for science excellence within a global marketplace, how can we deny our scientists the right to seek out appropriate collaborations, promising avenues of clinical investigation and the right to pursue basic science leading to new therapies that save lives.

Sadly, the policies that threaten the NIH — and the trends emerging with regard to our future science capabilities — will resonate years after we have witnessed their initial destructive impact. We must act now if we are to sustain our research excellence and restore essential confidence in the work being done by our medical researchers. To do less would undermine the enormous gift they have given us — the gift of their lives, the gift of life.

Dr. Daniel Ein served as a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute from 1969-1972.

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