Federal Scientists Join Lawsuit Protesting New Financial Disclosure Rule

Outraged over what they see as an invasion of privacy, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA have joined a lawsuit to block a law enacted in April that will require agencies to post financial reports for high-level government employees on the Internet. The law will make it even harder to recruit academic scientists to the government and could drive some researchers to leave, they say.

The protest targets the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, intended to prevent insider trading by members of Congress. The law also covers 28,000 senior staff members in the executive branch who are required to file a financial report known as an OGE-278 describing their assets and nonfederal income, as well as those of their spouses and dependent children (details here). The OGE-278 filers include about 600 senior staff members (not all scientists) at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, according to Holli Beckerman Jaffe, director of NIH's ethics office.

NIH researchers are already held to stringent limits on owning drug company stock, put in place 7 years ago. Their OGE-278 forms—which are reviewed by ethics officials—can be released to the public upon request. But the Stock Act mandates that starting 31 August, these forms will also be publicly posted on Internet. The forms must also be part of a searchable public database by October 2013.

Some NIH scientists see this as an invasion of privacy. In a complaint and motion filed in federal court yesterday, the Senior Executives Association and other plaintiffs, including a group called the Assembly of Scientists representing 45 NIH and other federal researchers, argue that they and the public "will suffer immediate and irreparable harm from the online disclosure of Plaintiffs private financial information." The employees say that making the forms easily available to anyone could make them vulnerable to identify theft or even kidnapping.

"The invasion of privacy of scientists who are trying to do their job is wrong," says plaintiff Joshua Zimmerberg, a biophysicist and lab chief at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), speaking as a private citizen. In a declaration in the lawsuit, Zimmerberg says the disclosures could also "poison relationships" with family and friends, affect salary or job negotiations, and even influence peer review of his work by stirring "jealousy." The policy will also harm NIH, Zimmerberg writes:

There is no question that the Stock Act will impact the ability to recruit capable scientists to public service. ... I am already aware of individuals that have resigned positions or refused to apply for positions that include a Stock Act disclosure obligation. This directly harms the United States’ unimpaired ability to conduct research into critical areas not covered by commercial interests.

Another researcher on the suit, Phil Skolnick, who left Eli Lilly in 2010 to head a drug development division at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that "if I had known this [form] would be publicly posted, I would never have come here." And NASA Chief Engineer Michael Ryschkewitsch testifies in the suit that some of his employees have asked to move down the federal pay scale to avoid falling under the Stock Act. The suit seeks a preliminary injunction to block the posting requirement.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives and the Senate approved a temporary reprieve: They delayed the date for posting the OGE-278 forms by 30 days. (The bill granting the delay has not yet signed by President Barack Obama.) Lawmakers said they need time to revise the law to protect national security—several former high-level federal officials have warned that it could harm the safety of defense, foreign service, and intelligence officials abroad. But Zimmerberg hopes the delay will also allow for "public discourse" about researchers' concerns.

The Assembly of Scientists has signed up more than 60 new members since the lawsuit made headlines yesterday, says the president of the group, reproductive health researcher Florence Haseltine, who retired from NICHD earlier this year and now has emeritus status (which means she must still file an OGE-278). The group is separate from an existing body known as the NIH Assembly of Scientists that pushed for adjustments to NIH's new conflict of interest rules several years ago. Ethics rules now constrain what that group can say publicly, explains Zimmerberg. The independent Assembly of Scientists "is completely separate" but has many members in common, he says.