Safety Issues Prompt NIH Overhaul of Clinical Center Leadership

Statement of Dr. Michael Carome, Director, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group

Note: Reports late Tuesday indicate that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will overhaul the leadership of its world-renowned NIH Clinical Center. The center is the largest inpatient hospital in the world devoted solely to research on patients with rare diseases and deadly disorders.

The findings of the just-released Clinical Center Working Group report highlight a stunning failure of NIH leadership at the highest levels. In particular, the report found that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has fostered a culture in which protecting patients and human research subjects from risk sometimes takes a back seat to the demands of researchers.

More broadly, the fact that protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects at the NIH Clinical Center has become subservient to research demands is indicative of a more endemic problem at other major U.S. research centers. Recent history reveals that researchers at leading U.S. medical schools and hospitals conduct unethical human experiments – often funded by NIH – with alarming frequency.

The failure to prioritize the safety of patients and human subjects, as described in the working group report, permeates the entire NIH intramural research program, thus involving every NIH institute. Accountability for such systemic failure must rest squarely on the shoulders of the current NIH director, Dr. Francis Collins.

The report authors appropriately recommend “strengthen[ing] leadership” at NIH to address this failure. Given the breadth of the problem, changing the culture at NIH to one that prioritizes protecting patients and human subjects over the pursuit of science necessitates finding a new NIH director who gives more than lip service to such protections, not simply scapegoating the leadership of the clinical center.