Environmental Factor, July 2010, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Ethics Made Easy
By Laura Hall
During Ethics Day on June 10, the NIEHS Office of Ethics showcased its new initiative to help make complying with government ethics regulations easier. Part of the initiative was consolidating the Bioethics Program, which applies to scientific research, into the Office of Ethics to make it easier to meet everyone's ethics needs under one umbrella program.
The goal of the program is to make the ethics regulatory information and forms easier to access, and to welcome and encourage people to ask any questions that they might have. "I don't worry about people who ask questions - I worry about those people who don't ask questions," said NIEHS Deputy Ethics Counselor Bruce Androphy, J.D(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/index.cfm). "Some of the NIEHS rules are hard to get through, to make sense of, [and] we don't want people being tripped up inadvertently."
The program began making ethics compliance easier by revamping its Web pages(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/index.cfm) to be a one-stop shop - allowing employees to immediately find what they need. With Ethics Day, the program gave employees the opportunity to meet all the members of the Office of Ethics, learn about ethics rules, and ask questions in an informal setting.
Ethics Day also offered several "Responsible Conduct of Research" training sessions that satisfy the mandatory annual research training requirement for scientists. The other annual mandatory ethics course that all employees must take will be offered later in the year.
Senior Policy Officer Holli Beckerman Jaffe, J.D., of the NIH Ethics Office(http://ethics.od.nih.gov/) , and Perry Newson, J.D., the executive director of the North Carolina State Ethics Commission(http://www.ethicscommission.nc.gov/) , were the two invited speakers for the brown bag lunch session.
Jaffe explained that ethics regulations are really standards of conduct. "My area is not judgmental, it's just rules," she said. Training, advice, and review are the main parts of the ethics program. "We don't expect you to be experts in the rules after training," she said. "We just want you to have a general idea of when you need to call the ethics office."
It is important to find out what the rules are because federal employees can be subject to criminal prosecution if they break certain ones. "Within our program, if you violate a criminal statute, we can't undo that," explained Jaffe. "Ethics is not an area in which you act first and then beg forgiveness," added NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., during the brown bag lunch.
Newson discussed how North Carolina state government ethics regulations evolved. He said, "The primary motivating factor for ethics regulation in this country is scandal." Newson pointed out similarities between North Carolina and federal ethics regulations. He agreed with Jaffe that ethics is "rules and regulations and laws, many of which are definitely counterintuitive." He also does not expect North Carolina government employees to know the rules. "They just have to be aware enough - and this is where the training comes in - to know that this is something that they need to ask a question about."
Androphy introduced the speakers at the brown bag lunch and talked about ethics at NIEHS in the second general ethics session. He went over some of the ethics rules that commonly pertain to NIEHS staff, such as the gift rules. He also covered the conflict of interest rules that could result in criminal prosecution if not followed correctly. "My goal is to keep people out of trouble," said Androphy. His motto for the Institute is "Be early, be accurate, and be ethical."
(Laura Hall is a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Toxicology and Pharmacology currently on detail as a writer for the Environmental Factor.)
Where Do the Federal Ethics Rules Originate?
When questioned about who writes the rules, Jaffe explained. "The criminal statutes are written by Congress and many go back to the Civil War." The rule that a federal employee cannot represent another person back to the government - such as talking to the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of a neighbor, for example - is one of those civil war rules that still apply to all federal employees.
Other rules are written by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which was established by the Ethics in Government Act passed in 1978. Financial disclosure regulations(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/disclosure.cfm) are one set of OGE rules. Another set, the government-wide standard of conduct regulations, includes the gift rules(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/gifts.cfm).
A third source of rules is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Its rules are applicable strictly to the HHS or just to the NIH. They include the outside activity regulations(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/ethics/outside.cfm) and the regulations that place a limit on the value of pharmaceutical and biotechnology company holdings for senior NIH people.