Today has been an interesting day, and it is best explained chronologically.
This morning, ASBMB public affairs staff learned that an email went out today to senior National Institutes of Health officials apparently instituting new, though temporary, procedures for correspondence with public officials. The email states that all correspondence must be approved by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The e-mail reads:
For your additional awareness, please note that we have been directed not to send any correspondence to public officials (to include Members of Congress and state and local officials) between now and February 3, unless specifically authorized by the Department. If you or your staff have any questions about whether a letter should go forward, please contact me or NIH Exec Sec.
Thanks and best wishes,
We spoke with current and former NIH officials, who confirmed the authenticity of the email. One former official indicated that instituting these temporary new procedures seems an unusual step, even during a presidential transition period.
We reached out to the NIH directly for comment to better understand how the new temporary procedures outlined in the email differ from existing NIH policy regarding communications with public officials and received the following response:
“NIH issued an email to the NIH Institute and Center directors providing guidance from HHS on new or pending regulation, policy or guidance. The HHS guidance instructs HHS Operating Divisions to hold on publishing new rules or guidance in the Federal Register or other public forums and discussing them with public officials until the Administration has had an opportunity to review them.
Please direct any additional questions to the White House.”
As you can see, that statement is far more specific than the one we were originally looking into this morning.
To be clear, we do not know how different these new temporary procedures are from existing ones. (We did ask the NIH to explain the differences, but, as you can see, the NIH didn’t.). Nor do we yet have information about how the decision was made to implement the temporary procedures. We do not know, for example, if the directive came from the Trump administration or from within the Department of Health and Human Services. And we, frankly, do not know if this is the beginning of a new phase of more restricted communications, or if everything will go back to normal – whatever that means – after Feb. 3.
We do know, however, that any effort to stop a scientific agency from responding to congressional, federal, state and local inquiries has a chilling effect. As we told the Huffington Post, peer-reviewed science should remain free of politicization, and we support the NIH and all federally funded scientific agencies in their efforts to continue on their missions without political interference.