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Low morale at US agency revives dormant scientist group

NIH scientists join forces to tackle internal problems.

Driven by an increasingly demoralized environment at the US National Institutes of Health, a group of researchers at the agency have banded together to champion their cause. The group's leaders say their goal is to boost spirits and preserve the agency's ability to recruit and retain top scientists.

The Assembly of Scientists, a reincarnation of several organizations launched in the late 1950s, lay dormant for nearly 30 years. But in November 2004, amid rumors of an impending clampdown on financial consulting, Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of NIH's clinical bioethics department, fired off a fuming letter to NIH director Elias Zerhouni and revived the group with the help of 200 colleagues.

I don't think that changing parts of the conflict-of-interest rule is going to be sufficient to boost morale. Ezekiel Emanuel, NIH

In theory, more than 2,000 NIH scientists are automatically considered members of the group, and at the first meeting in January 2005, at least 700 scientists were in attendance, either in person or via video conference. Since then, the organization has adopted new bylaws, elected a 12-member advisory council and begun soliciting donations.

Among the group's goals is to retain the uniformed commissioned corps of the US Public Health Service, who routinely work at NIH. These scientists are deemed first responders and must move quickly to hurricane and other disaster areas. The scientists used to be able to retire after 20 years and become NIH employees, but for reasons that are unclear, this has since become difficult. “We are losing more and more of these individuals and they constitute the bulk of clinical investigators,” says Alan Schechter, chief of molecular biology at the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases.

Another hot-button topic is the restrictions on travel to meetings. Unlike employees of many other agencies, NIH scientists must fly coach unless the trip is longer than 14 hours on a single leg. Schechter, a 40-year veteran at the NIH, recently canceled a trip to Vietnam because of the rules. “In the end the biggest factor was that I just did not have the energy at my age to fly coach from Washington to Hong Kong,” he says.

An NIH spokesperson said, “These are real concerns of our scientists and are being addressed,” but declined to comment on specific complaints.

Discontent has been brewing at the NIH for a few years but came to a head after a series of press reports uncovered conflict-of-interest violations at the agency. In response, the NIH initially proposed restrictive rules on the financial arrangements, revising them in August to a more relaxed set (Nat. Med. 11, 914–915).

Still, a number of problems affect the mood at the NIH, says Emanuel. “Each one of these is a worrisome situation,” he says. “I don't think that changing parts of the conflict- of-interest rule is going to be sufficient to boost morale.”

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Mack, G. Low morale at US agency revives dormant scientist group. Nat Med 12, 6 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm0106-6b

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