National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni stood before hundreds of NIH employees yesterday to explain why it had become necessary for him to impose, in his words, "drastic" restrictions on stock ownership and other forms of outside income, which take effect today for all agency employees.
"What I'm asking you to do is hold your fire until you hear the details," he told the crowd assembled in an auditorium on the agency's Bethesda campus.
The new rules are stricter than those NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni proposed.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
And when he was done, they let him have it.
One after another, scientists, doctors and other agency staffers stepped up to the microphones and raged against the new rules, made public Tuesday. By the time it was over, 90 minutes later, nary a positive word had been uttered about the new policy and there was more vented spleen around than a busy medical center like the NIH might normally see in a year.
The goal, as Zerhouni repeatedly explained, was to save the venerable agency's reputation, which had become badly sullied after 14 months of embarrassing revelations about conflicts of interest among NIH scientists.
"This issue was standing between the prestigious history of the NIH and its future," Zerhouni told the restive crowd.
But the solution, many argued yesterday, was unjustifiably extreme, punishing virtually all of the agency's 18,000 employees for the bad actions of a few.
"Even my secretary is going to have to sell her stock. How much sense does that make?" fumed Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of the agency's department of clinical bioethics.
The event, which NIH officials dubbed a "town hall meeting" for employees, marked an extraordinary climax to a convoluted tale of science, politics and money that had grown increasingly unmanageable in recent months. After trying to "stand up for his troops," Zerhouni said, he was "shot in the back" with the discovery, made by congressional investigators, that more than 100 NIH employees had not disclosed various relationships they had with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, in violation of government ethics rules.
From that point, Zerhouni said, he knew he had no choice but to put draconian measures in place -- measures he acknowledged were sure to have ripple effects on NIH's ability to recruit and retain talent for years to come but that he hoped would ultimately strengthen the institution.
A few attendees expressed a modicum of sympathy for Zerhouni, who was under intense congressional and Bush administration pressure to explain why the agency was still deserving of its $28 billion budget. But the meeting was repeatedly punctuated by cheers and applause as questioners expressed their ire at the specifics of the new rules.
Most irritating, apparently, is the rule that will require thousands of employees -- and their spouses and dependents -- to divest themselves of all stock holdings in drug, biotech and other medically oriented companies. Even lower-ranking employees with no influence on grants or policies will be limited to individual holdings of $15,000.
All are required to make those divestitures within 90 days, at a time, as one speaker put it, that much of that industry "is at the bottom of a cycle."