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Zerhouni Defends NIH at Third Town Hall Meeting
By Rich McManusPhotos by Ernie Branson
During his first 18 months here, Dr. Elias Zerhouni has consistently championed NIH as a stellar organization of committed employees. But at his third Town Hall meeting since being named director, he was even more ardent in his defense of NIH as a keeper of the public trust as he answered a series of public controversies that arose during 2003, including congressional concern about NIH grants that address sexual behavior and drug use, and about outside consulting arrangements that some employees have with private industry.
Twice during Zerhouni's opening remarks, the audience interrupted key comments with spontaneous applause. The first occurred during his discussion of NIH grants in the area of HIV/AIDS, drug use and sexuality. "I have had more communication on these areas of research than any other topics this year, mostly from Congress," said Zerhouni. He defended the integrity of peer review, declared that NIH has an obligation to study "the full spectrum of public health issues," then stated, "NIH will not shy away from studying what harms people...we are first and foremost physicians and healers."
As a burst of applause died down, he continued, "No one category of disease is less deserving than another of NIH study. Make no mistake there is no way I will shy away from any of our suffering patients."
Zerhouni told the crowd in Masur Auditorium on Dec. 16 that NIH "must be responsive, we must stand behind our process" when under fire from critics. He said NIH gets advice from some 21,000 advisors, and that its work is balanced and "not done in darkness.
"Our stewardship gets questioned from time to time, and when it does, I will address it clearly," he said.
He then moved to the second controversy, generated by a Dec. 7 story in the Los Angeles Times that criticized a number of top NIH scientists for their consulting ties. "Clearly we need to address these issues," Zerhouni began. "We can't afford to see the public trust in our institution diminished in any way." That earned another round of applause.
"I would rather have our scientists sought after than considered irrelevant and sought by no one," he continued. He said NIH has two duties to the public: that our research results in benefits to people, and that we uphold full disclosure so that NIH activities are seen to have integrity "not only in reality but also in perception." He said explicit processes are in place to assure the integrity of NIH science and that he is "very committed" to them. "I do believe that many of the reports have been exaggerated, and that NIH has been harmed by innuendo and the juxtaposition of facts...I want to bring the maximum light to this issue, so that the shadows will go away.
"I am very proud of the caliber of NIH employees," he said, "and I'm proud that our knowledge has been sought out...Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers is all I can say, but there is always room for improvement, and we'll carefully look into that and implement any necessary change as soon as possible." He then repeated a theme that has marked his NIH tenure from the start: "We must be factual, not factional...I am moved by the weight of evidence, not opinions."
He said that NIH's recent difficulties have brought NIH's best qualities to the fore. "I am deeply impressed by the commitment you have shown in the face of difficulties. The more difficult the issue, the more spirit I see here."
While Zerhouni's impassioned defense of NIH's people and mission found him at his most emphatic, particularly as the agency strives for transparency, he began his remarks by saying he is pleased that NIH'ers are winning A-76 competitions. He also mentioned several key new appointments, including NIDCR's Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, who has joined the Office of the Director on detail to lead the implementation of the new NIH Roadmap for Medical Research initiative.
The program continued with an update on security from Steve Ficca, NIH associate director for research services. He noted that there has been a 60 percent decrease in reported crime since 2002, and that the perimeter fence, complete with pedestrian entrances, should be finished by March 2004.
Leonard Taylor, director of the Office of Research Facilities, gave a slide-enhanced tour of current construction projects on campus, which range from stream restoration projects (including that hole on the lawn of Bldg. 1) to the completion of the Clinical Research Center by late this year. Conceding that the campus is looking fairly dug-up just now, he cheerfully concluded, "Just think how wonderful it will look when it's done."
Offering an A-76 update was Tim Wheeles, director of the Division of Management Support, who said that NIH has agreed, in consultation with HHS and OMB, to complete its review of all commercial functions by 2014. He noted that, should an NIH MEO (most efficient organization the reconfigured grouping of a particular function to enhance cost-effectiveness) fail, then NIH must re-compete the job function. Further, "NIH might not have a seat at that competition this is incredibly important to realize."
Thus far, the A-76 scorecard reads as follows: NIH won 34 of 36 reviews conducted in 2002, and 2 of 2 in 2003. In 2004, NIH intends to review functions in visual and medical arts; veterinary services; telecommunications; information technology data center and networking; material management; and logistics and material handling. These represent a total of some 300 FTEs.
During the question session, employees discussed such issues as difficulties with the travel portion of the new NIH Business System; shuttle bus scheduling; pedestrian safety; and fairness in hiring of postdoctoral fellows.
Zerhouni brought the 70-minute meeting to a close by urging employees to embrace the values of the holiday season, particularly family, which he said "comes first with me." After wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday, and asking NIH'ers to join him in considering employment here "a privilege," he made one last pitch in his role as CFC campaign leader: "I thank those of you who have contributed and, if you haven't done so yet, please consider contributing to the CFC before it ends."
The complete Town Hall meeting is available for viewing at http://videocast.nih.gov.
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