NIH lobbying rules

There is a nice discussion over at DM’s place going on about stable career paths for career bench scientists.  Within that discussion has been some mention of things that NIH might be able to do immediately to improve the situation.  Rather than quote these ideas, I would like to point out that I am highly skeptical of NIH being able to implement new programs without Congressional Approval.  I am by no means an expert on this topic and I am being intentionally nonspecific in the wording of the previous sentence.  The purpose of this post is to relay a previous experience with some NIH program officers at one of these famous “air your grievances sessions” and to point out some of NIH’s ethics rules to those that may not be aware of them.

First, the story…
About two years ago I was at a big subfield meeting in D.C. and some program officers were nice enough to come over and talk about some of the recent funding problems, implementation of new investigator programs and the progress of a certain NIH consortium. Sooner than one might have guessed the session turned into a whine and moan fest (at least that is how I remember it). Being the grateful little NRSA holder I was at the time (and one of the program officers had helped me considerably with a difficult situation) I decided to get up and try to deflect a bit of the complaining back onto a lack of action by the whiners. I don’t remember exactly what I asked but it was something along the lines of “what can we do to help make the situation better?” The answer, which came from a program officer I did not know, was a revelation, at least to me. NIH staff is not able to go over to Congress and push for more money (or much of anything for that matter). In fact, doing so would be illegal (more on that later). The program officers expressed further frustration with the current situation, they emphasized that they are just as passionate about the advances that occur in their portfolios as many of the rest of us are and that they can plainly see how the current situation is hurting the research machine that has built up over the previous decades. These are all paraphrases and somewhat generalized (and likely tinted by my shaky memory) but the overall message was clear: Don’t look at us, our hands are tied. Be your own best advocate and get involved by writing to Congress. The impact on the audience was obvious. It was clear to me that most (if not all) were completely ignorant of these rules and the tick in everyone’s mind was, what I have I really done to help out here.

As I mentioned in the thread at DM’s place I have since started to write to my Congress people. Is it helping? I don’t know, honestly, but change will come in a mass of voices. If you’re upset about the way research funding is going and you can think of one good reason why it is important for the nation, write your Congressperson!

Now the bit about NIH ethics rules. The program officers were not making anything up. There are some rather strict rules in place that govern their potential interactions with Congress. You can read them here. I am not a legal scholar so my understanding of the exact meaning of these rules is not too advanced; however, I know enough to be able to see that a variety of interactions that we might pass off as trivial could be easily misconstrued as a violation of ethics rules. As far as I am concerned, hands tied indeed! So next time you’re thinking, why doesn’t NIH just do this, keep those rules in mind, go to your computer and send Congress a line.

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