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More Turmoil Over Hidden Costs of NIH Children's Study

The long-time director of an ambitious children's health study at the National Institutes of Health has changed jobs in the wake of an internal report suggesting that officials deliberately concealed the ballooning costs of the project.

Mandated by Congress in 2000, the National Children's Study (NCS) plans to follow the health of 100,000 children from before birth through to age 21. Several months ago, officials at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) revealed that the price tag for the study, long estimated at around $3 billion over 25 years, could actually reach $6 billion. NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington put the full study on hold until a pilot is completed and ordered a review.

That was not the end of the matter, however. A recent report from the NIH Office of Management Assessment, the agency's internal auditing office, suggests that NICHD staff deliberately left out the "indirect," or overhead costs, of the study in their estimates, according to a source who has seen the report. Lawmakers are not happy about NIH's lack of candor. Last week in a report accompanying a spending bill for NIH's 2010 budget, a Senate panel said it "consider[s] this withholding of information to be a serious breach of trust." Unlike its House of Representatives counterpart, the Senate panel did not set aside the $194 million for NCS that the White House requested; instead the Senate will decide the funding level, "if any," when it meets with the House to reconcile the two bills.

Meanwhile, on 10 July, NCS's first director, Peter Scheidt, stepped down to become an advisor to NICHD Director Duane Alexander. As yet unknown is whether there will be more fallout from this accounting problem. But one rumor circulating in Washington, D.C., is that Alexander, who turns 69 this month and has led the NICHD for 23 years, will soon announce his retirement.