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NIH Memo Touches Off Worries

The directors of institutes and centers at the US National Institutes of Health have been directed to refrain from providing guidance on any new or pending regulation, policy, or guidance, the Huffington Post reports.

According to the ASBMB Policy Blotter blog, NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak sent an email that said:

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 [of Health and Human Services]. If you or your staff have any questions about whether a letter should go forward, please contact me or NIH Exec Sec.

The memo set "off alarms among an already jittery NIH community," ScienceInsider notes, as some took it as a sign of a crackdown on science. However, an NIH spokesperson tells ScienceInsider that this is fairly routine, as new administrations often want to review new regulations. An HHS spokesperson likewise tells the Huffington Post that the agency wasn't restricting all forms of communication, just to limit those about proposed or pending regulations.

But the Huffington Post notes, other federal agencies have received wider directives, which likely contributed to those jitters. For instance, it reports that a memo went out at the Environmental Protection Agency saying that it would not issue any press releases, social media posts, or blog messages until further notice. At the same time, grants at the agency were frozen, pending review. A similar memo was sent to the Agricultural Research Service, but Reuters has reported that that it was sent by mistake and that the Department of Agriculture would be sending a replacement guidance.

ASBMB's Benjamin Corb tells ScienceInsider that it could be that the NIH 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.