National Institutes of Health building

A House subcommittee's budget proposal for the National Institues of Health is much more friendly to the agency than that of the Trump administration.

Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

Memo freezing NIH communications with Congress triggers jitters

Is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) part of the clampdown by the 5-day-old Trump administration on communications at science agencies? That’s how some are reacting to White House directive telling NIH to halt correspondence with public officials and hold off on new policies. But some observers say the NIH directive is not unusual for a new administration.

The worries were triggered by an email sent today by NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak to NIH’s 27 institute and center directors. It was first reported on the blog of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) and states in part:

Colleagues,

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,

Larry Tabak

The Huffington Post reports that some other agencies at NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have received a similar directive. That story puts the memo in the same vein as a recently reported freeze on grants and a shutdown of social media posts and press releases at the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, Trump officials have blocked the release of public documents at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research arm.(USDA has since anounced it is withdrawing the order and will rewrite it.)

“The freeze has startled aides on the Hill and people at those agencies, who worry that it could abruptly upend current operations and stifle work and discussions that routinely take place between branches of government,” The Huffington Post reports.

But NIH spokesperson Renate Myles in Bethesda, Maryland, explained in an email to ScienceInsider that Tabak’s memo was just part of a suspension of new regulations and policies issued by HHS:

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.

Myles added that the HHS guidance, in turn, “was just a summary” of a memorandum that Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, issued on 20 January. It freezes new regulations until the new administration can review them. The memo also tells agencies to hold off on issuing any statement "that sets forth a policy on a statutory, regulatory, or technical issue or an interpretation of a statutory or regulatory issue."

The NIH memo was not sent to employees across the agency. And NIH has not received any guidance restricting the agency from issuing press releases or posting on social media, Myles says.

Benjamin Corb, ASBMB’s director of public affairs in Rockville, Maryland, says it’s possible that the guidance is “a normal thing that happens in any transition period. But we want to make sure federally funded science agencies are able to carry out their mission without political interference.”

One source close to NIH suggested the freeze on new policies is standard during a transition, but that Tabak’s email was poorly worded, setting off alarms among an already jittery NIH community.