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Impropriety or merely the appearance thereof?

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Consider the case of pulmonologist David Schwartz, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. * The $250,000-a-year director earns $150,000 as an expert witness in asbestos cases during his tenure so far (pdf). Several ethics officers question the propriety of having the director of the institute that provides asbestos fibers to researchers testify in asbestos litigation for pay (though the Deputy Director of the entire National Institutes of Health defends the practice while cautioning against it). * Schwartz refuses to sell stocks in biotechnology companies, calling such a move "unreasonable" and adding "I'm simply not willing to limit my investments in this way." A NIEHS ethics officer reminds him: "It may appear to be unreasonable, but it is the law." * Schwartz imports scientists from his old employer Duke University as "guest researchers," runs up a $5.8 million tab ($4 million over budget) in his new NIEHS lab because he assumes his new employer will not charge him for the use of its facilities, resulting in his banishment from his own lab for three months and the return of more than 10 guests back to Duke. Now the ongoing investigation of Senator Charles Grassley has issued a warning letter (pdf) to NIH director Elias Zerhouni warning against any interference with NIEHS whistleblowers. Schwartz, meanwhile, blames it all on "misunderstandings." What do you think?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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