OPRR: Panel Recommends Moving Agency Out of NIH
In the wake of several recent human research ethics glitches, an advisory panel yesterday recommended elevating the Office for Protection of Research Risks -- charged with overseeing thousands of studies --from relative obscurity within NIH to a more prominent position. A panel of "six medical, legal and ethics experts" convened by NIH Director Harold Varmus last year noted that the OPRR "is financially and politically dependant upon the NIH -- the very agency that sponsors most of the research the office is supposed to regulate" -- creating "both the appearance and the actuality of a conflict of interest." The panel recommended that the OPRR report either to the assistant secretary for health or Surgeon General David Satcher. It also warned that unless the OPRR's stature is improved, "the nation's biomedical research enterprise risks losing the confidence of scientists and the public alike." Varmus "expressed his support for the panel's findings," and said he will pass them along for action by HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.
'More Politicized Realm'
Panel member Nancy Dubler of Montefiore Medical Center said the board recognized that "there are risks in moving the office to the more politicized realm of the HHS secretary's office," where "[m]embers of Congress displeased with OPRR's actions against certain medical centers might threaten political punishment." But panel co-chair Renee Landers, former HHS deputy general counsel, said "such political pressures could be mitigated by creating an HHS advisory committee to oversee and protect OPRR." The panel also recommended upgrading the office's financial resources, including boosting the pay of the OPRR director, a position currently held by Gary Ellis. Ellis, who would have to re-apply for the job if the pay raise took effect, was asked if the panel's recommendation "might be a thinly veiled effort to dump him." He said, "Let's hope not" (Weiss, Washington Post, 6/4).